Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)


Michael Fassbender (Brandon Sullivan), Carey Mulligan (Sissy Sullivan), James Dale (David Fisher). Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Directed by Steve McQueen. Rating: 18. Running time: 101 minutes.

For the first time in years, and definitely the first time since I became a Serious Moviegoer, I broke a Golden Rule in missing the start of Shame. I banked on twenty minutes of ads and barely a second of queuing, but a combination of girls apparently flocking to see Madonna’s W.E and Odeon for some reason starting the film at a reasonable time conspired to ensure I walked in late. To my further surprise, I found myself on the front row (which is fine, but it’s normally a choice) and forced to sit on the side (which is definitely not okay). The screening being in such a small room helped to fill it, but it was still shocking to see this sex-packed 18-rated fringe film sell out on a Saturday at a multiplex.

But I guess that’s Oxford for you. The figures suggest my prediction would have been accurate almost anywhere else in the world, where Shame has so far only managed a measly $6m, meaning it has done well to break even. And yet it is, I’m certain, a great film. There’s still lots to see this year, but alongside Tree of Life and Midnight I will be amazed if it doesn’t end up in my top three. McQueen has taken us into territory barely touched since Last Tango, and in doing so he has made a masterful, drainingly dark film.

Fassbender is the focus, and he’s formidable, easily giving the best male performance I’ve seen this year. As Brandon Sullivan he has a comfortably middle class life with all the tell-tale signs of normality, but on the inside there’s a storm of sexual addiction brewing that means that mentally he’s not living high-up in his Manhattan apartment; he’s down on Travis Bickle’s scummy streets.

His apartment is bare, an Ikea blueprint. There’s nothing expressive of his personality because he doesn’t have one, and so in a sense the emptiness is reflective of his psyche. It’s just cold, square, colourless furniture providing the backdrop to his unbridled libido, and we come to assume it pervades his thoughts so much that McQueen, knowingly, can’t even show Brandon entering the toilet without us assuming he’s going to masturbate rather than urinate.

There’s nothing erotic here. A superbly shot subway scene aside, in which Brandon toys with a woman and engages in what can only be called ‘eye-sex’, his desires are consistently mechanical and thus painful. Later on the possibility of sex with emotional strings attached arises and nearly transpires, but he can’t bring himself to do it. There’s nothing human about him. It’s an outrageously naked portrayal, in more ways than one. If Brando was alive and in his prime today, it would be roles like this he’d be taking, and it would be performances like Fassbender’s here that he would be giving.

Carey Mulligan also deserves praise, for a minor performance that’s her most important to date. She showed she could break the stereotypes by starring in a film like Drive, but her role there was still predictably sweet-girl cutie-pie. That vanishes here, convincingly replaced with a foul-mouthed unattractive roughie, evidently troubled by an unstable past.

Bradshaw detects some black humour, and my audience agreed. They’re both right, but somehow it doesn’t turn out to be an uncomfortable marriage. I can never pinpoint what is it that makes the combination of mischievous comedy and serious drama work, but whatever it is, it’s present here, and it provides some mild relief in the middle of the film before we’re set up for a return to the heavy, difficult reality of Brandon’s life in the finale.

The pace by this point gets a touch puzzling. Three or four times I anticipated a cut to the credits only to be thrust once again into a brief new scene. But the point of each is to tie the tragedy up, paradoxically by letting his awful world unravel. He finally gets physical damage to show for the state of his soul when he flirts with a taken girl in a bar and finds himself face to face with her man. But it’s no different than what Brandon has been doing to himself for the past 90 minutes. Namely, non-stop life-negating self-flagellation, that’s sure to send you into silence.

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