|Image: Momentum Pictures|
The last time writer/director/artist Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender collaborated they brought us Hunger. It was a visceral, daring debut from McQueen with a star-making turn from Fassbender. Their new film has earned them a lot of praise on the festival circuit, as well as plenty of controversy.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in New York. He’s successful; he has a nice apartment and a high-powered job. His computer is loaded with pornography and his life is a string of one night stands and encounters with prostitutes. Then his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay.
Shame received the dreaded NC-17 rating in the States and it’s likely that there’ll be a fair few people coming to see it purely based on that notoriety. McQueen has been vocal about wanting to tackle this subject matter and talk about how the accessibility of sex and pornography has affected our society. But while the subject matter is vital to the story, we would argue that Shame is not an issue movie; it’s a drama about two broken people.
The performances from Fassbender and Mulligan are perfectly matched. We’re introduced to Brandon through a series of intercut sequences including a visit from a prostitute and his morning routine, but the most striking of these is his subway ride where he and a young woman make eye contact. While she goes through curiosity, excitement, and guilt, Brandon’s expression never changes.
Then there’s Sissy. She’s as open and in need of attention as much as he’s cold and in need of solitude. Brandon’s personal space is a world to be protected, to Sissy it’s just as much hers as it is his, they’re family after all. She needles him because she wants comfort, he snaps at her because he wants to be left alone. While Brandon’s incapable of having a meaningful relationship, Sissy’s incapable of letting any relationship go. She has noisy sex with Brandon’s boss (a superbly odious James Badge Dale) while Brandon paces in the next room. But perhaps the best clue to their relationship is in the nightclub where she sings "New York, New York". Brandon starts to weep.
She tells Brandon that family are supposed to look after each other, he asks her when she’s ever looked after him. The disappointment and disgust he feels towards her scare and unsettle Sissy, but she’s aware that he’s projecting. “We’re not bad people,” she tells him at a key point in the film, “We just come from a bad place.” Whatever happened in their past, Sissy needs him to be there as support because she can’t face it while he needs her to leave because for the exact same reason.
McQueen’s New York is an intensely visual and lonely place. Reflective surfaces abound, distorting Brandon’s image. He’s constantly on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. As the film reaches its climax and Brandon trawls the New York night, McQueen reduces that distance as Fassbender’s performance grows increasingly raw. It’s a beautifully open portrait of a character that deserves the praise it’s getting.
Verdict: A superb drama with stunning performances from Fassbender and Mulligan, Shame is a harrowing examination of two broken souls.