Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems to have the perfect life. He has a good job as an executive, a fancy New York apartment, and a way with the ladies. In fact he has his way with as many ladies as he can. Be they pick ups, prostitutes, or casual flings. If he’s not having sex, he’s thinking about having sex, or watching porn on his laptop, unless he’s at the office where he will use his work computer then masturbate in the gents.
Brandon’s life is free of any emotional connection of any kind. That’s how he likes it. When Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up and asks to stay for a while his perfectly ordered life begins to unravel. Sissy is his opposite, over-emotional, incapable of looking after herself, and unpredictable. There is a hint of some shared trauma in their past that simultaneously ties them together and tears them apart yet director Steve McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan never offer any easy explanations for their behaviour.
McQueen’s artistic background is clear from the look of Shame. Though the subject matter is hard-hitting the approach is transcendent rather than gritty. Scenes are often accompanied by Harry Escott’s evocative score. Particularly effective is a sequence where Brandon stares longingly at a pretty redhead on a train. The music rises, expressing his desire for this woman, the need for fulfillent, and a yearning.
“Isn’t that sad? Don’t you think that’s sad?”
Sissy sings in an upmarket bar and demands her brother come and see her. She performs a version of ‘New York, New York,’ which belies the upbeat nature of the song by being unbearably sad. McQueen films the entire song with the camera focused in close-up on Mulligan’s face. Only towards the end does he cut away from Mulligan, to a close-up of Fassbender, as Brandon begins to cry. Afterwards Sissy has a one-night stand with Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale) in his apartment. This along with a failed attempt at forming a normal relationship sends Brandon on a downward spiral.
Though the final act of the film seems a tad melodramatic Shame remains powerful. Fassbender and Mulligan give performances that are revealing both emotionally and physically. Neither holds anything back. Fassbender has already picked up Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and should be there or thereabouts during awards season. For McQueen this is a remarkable second film and marks him out as the most promising British film director to emerge in a long time.
- Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
- Written by Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
- Directed by Steve McQueen
- Running time 99 mins