The past few months have seen some really exciting, memorable films featuring terrific performances, first-rate screenplays and strong-willed directing. ‘Tinker Tailor’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and ‘The Skin I Live In’ have made this summer season of movies one to remember. It seems, however, that the best has been saved till last, with an uncompromising and brutal film that trumps them in almost every way.
‘Shame’ sees the re-teaming of British director Steve McQueen and Irish actor Michael Fassbender after McQueen’s acclaimed first feature ‘Hunger’ (2008). Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lives a well-orchestrated New York lifestyle with the incredible apartment and the perfect job. However, when his wayward sibling Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears on his doorstep asking for somewhere to stay, his private life begins to unravel. Behind the cultivated veneer, Brandon suffers from a crippling sex addiction, and Sissy’s arrival blows apart his solitary freedom and forces everything he cannot stand about himself into plain sight.
Steve McQueen has pulled off something miraculous with this film, co-written with Abi Morgan. Before becoming a film director, McQueen worked as an acclaimed visual artist, and you can see that throughout ‘Shame’. The directorial control is breathtaking, perfectly paced and executed. The content of the film is brutal and, at times, difficult to watch, and McQueen approaches it with the cold detachment of an observer. Some moments find the camera sitting completely still for long takes, both intimate dialogue scenes and silent observations of Brandon stumbling through his personal nightmare. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does some of the best camerawork you will see on film in a long time, rejecting handheld reality with steely compositions, perfectly complimented by inspired musical choices. In more intense moments, Brandon turns to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, an obsessively perfect performance befitting a man so rigidly trying to hold his life together. The theme of obsession dominates this film, and it finds itself beautifully written into the DNA of every element of it.
The central heart of the film though is Michael Fassbender. His performance is utterly magnificent, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best you will ever see. Brandon is a devastating creation, a broken and crippled soul, hidden by someone trying so hard to remain dark and mysterious. McQueen follows Fassbender with long, unrelenting takes, showing us a man self-imploding with unrelenting hatred for himself. ‘Shame’ demands Fassbender push himself to places most actors would never be brave enough to go, laying himself bare, literally and emotionally. He doesn’t balk for a second, and watching him crumble before our eyes is more upsetting or confronting than any of his graphic sexual encounters.
Carey Mulligan once again proves herself one of the most exciting actors of her generation, chipping away her usual cool demeanor to give Sissy a cheeky and dangerous vitality. She is the antithesis to her brothers’ brooding silence, but just as damaged and lost. Their conflict forces both into a reassessment of their lives and their relationship, driving them to a emotionally devastating climax. James Badge Dale is also excellent as Brandon’s unnervingly lame boss, providing another road block in the way of Brandon indulging his addiction.
‘Shame’ is not an easy film by any means. The sex scenes are graphic and often uncomfortable to watch. McQueen wisely uses them to chart Brandon’s breakdown, taking us further into his abyss the more extreme and upsetting they become.
‘Shame’ is not an easy film by any means. The sex scenes are graphic and often uncomfortable to watch. McQueen wisely uses them to chart Brandon’s breakdown, taking us further into his abyss the more extreme and upsetting they become. The scale of Brandon’s addiction is shocking, the sex random and disconnected. There is no doubt as to what end Brandon wants from it - complete self-destruction at any cost. McQueen has established himself as a director of the same artistic ferocity as Kubrick or Fincher, and Fassbender one of the most talented living actors.
There is a scene, early in the film, where Brandon visits a bar where Sissy is performing. Over a handful of long, lingering shots, we hear her perform a melancholic jazz cover of ‘New York, New York’, a song about following your dreams and being proud of your achievemnts. We watch Brandon, with the New York skyline behind him, seeing the disaster his life is becoming, the empty void inside him. Whatever dreams he once had have been lost, and he has become a man he cannot stand, and cannot stand to be. As his equally lost sister beautifully plays the irony of what she sings, all we see on his face is crippling shame. It is a moment of true cinematic poetry, and only one example why ‘Shame’ is one of the most significant films of our time. A genuine masterpiece.