Warning for slight spoilers contained in this review (but nothing that will make you break out in hives).
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Written by: Steven McQueen & Abi Morgan
Directed by: Steve McQueen
I’m not sure what I expected from ‘Shame’. It’s been everywhere as that film about sex, the one that was given an NC-17 rating in America (aka the Box Office Rating of Death), and advance reviews that I read suggested that, at the very least, I would leave the cinema completely traumatised.
And then I went to see it, and it blew me away.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a film aimed solely at adults that was actually any good. ‘Closer’, for instance, tried to be a film for adults but was more focused on telling the story of a group of people who were adolescents trapped in adult bodies and swore a lot. But ‘Shame’ is a whole other kind of storytelling – for people with intelligence who think about things – and it’s extraordinary.
To begin with, ‘Shame’ is a film about sex addiction that has the least sexy sex scenes in it ever, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. In many ways, the experiences of one individual – Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender – is the lens through which we can look at a much wider subject matter; that of the human condition, and the lengths that people will go to when they’re searching for something.
Brandon’s existence – and it is an existence, not a life, that he’s living – shows the contradiction presented by society’s attitude to sex; it’s everywhere, used to sell anything and everything. On my way to the cinema, I saw a sign that said “SEX! … now that we’ve got your attention, call in and check out our range of precision-cut keys.” In this age of the consumer as king, sex is just another commodity to be bought and sold.
While society actively encourages having as much as sex as possible, sexual prowess used as a marker of a person’s ability to have fun – exemplified perfectly in the character of Brandon’s boss, David ( James Badge Dale) – reaching out and taking what society is offering proves that it’s not all it seems. People like Brandon are the ones who are pushed aside, exiled to the margins because they’re seen as ‘disgusting’. The conversation between Brandon and his boss about the contents of his computer’s hard drive points up perfectly the hypocrisy inherent in the consumerist attitude towards sex.
From the moment that the film opens, the camera hovering over Brandon staring dead-eyed at the ceiling – his blue bedsheets presenting a stark contrast to his pale, thin body – we are taken on a journey with a man whose life is defined by the overwhelming, constant urge for sex. His encounters are ritualised, almost habit; he is introverted and solitary. His addiction is such a driving force that everything else is tuned out; his job, though he is good at it, is not enough to quell the urge; his apartment is sparse and bare, with hardly any life or personality to it; even his fridge is empty, Brandon seeming to consist on a regular diet of coffee and Red Bull. Brandon is a man stripped of all dignity and self-respect, but full of self-loathing. Tension sits on his shoulders – so much so that it’s almost tangible – in the lines of his face, and stares back at him in the mirror.
And then Brandon’s sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives – her arrival heralded, appropriately, by the song “I Want Your Love” blasting through Brandon’s normally quiet apartment. She is his polar opposite, extroverted and emotional, completely unafraid of showing how she feels – and baffled by her brother’s attitude towards her. It is here that we see the first cracks appearing in Brandon’s careful facade, and her presence drives the rest of the film.
While Brandon and Sissy are opposites in terms of personality, they are both as broken as each other, the events of their past still haunting them. We are never told their backstory, never given an explanation about what happened to break both of them so completely. There is a moment when Brandon hears Sissy crying through the wall of his bedroom, and the look on his face suggests that this is not an unfamiliar experience.
Both of them want to escape; in a glorious, glorious scene, Sissy sings a stripped-down, emotionally raw version of “New York, New York” that strikes such a chord with Brandon that tears escape down his face. It’s a song filled with such hope, but achingly sad for those who have tried to make it somewhere, anywhere, and not succeeded.
The underlying tension of the film snaps into sharper focus with Sissy’s arrival; there is an argument between the siblings that resembles a car crash, as their relationship disintegrates with an intensity that is completely riveting. In fact, these scenes feel more uncomfortable to watch than the sex scenes.
Brandon’s attempts to hang on to the life he has made for himself can’t last forever; his breakdown, when it happens – inevitable from the moment that someone comes too close to the things that he wants to keep hidden – involves huge, body-wracking sobs, all of the pain and desperation and helplessness he feels pushing its way to the surface. There’s a scene near the end where Brandon has a moment of ecstasy, which looks as far from ecstasy as it’s possible to imagine; the pain on his face is visceral and desperate. It’s a haunting image that stuck with me long after the film had ended.
Cinematically speaking, ‘Shame’ is a beautiful film. Shot in hues of blue, black and silver, all glass and metal, New York City is as soulless and cold as Brandon’s addiction. Steve McQueen is a fantastic director, composing long, elegaic scenes, and shunning conventions such as framing a conversation between two people in two points of view. There are lovely touches here and there that add to its beauty – at an urgent and dramatic moment, we only see Brandon’s face in a distorted reflection – and when McQueen cuts loose, the camera following Brandon as he runs through the city at night, all restless energy, like the city itself, it’s a wonderful thing to see. I should also mention the soundtrack, which I have on repeat while I write this; it’s full of some very appropriately chosen songs, and matches the tone of the film perfectly.
McQueen, along with Abi Morgan, also wrote the script; as with ‘Hunger’, there is humour to be found in unexpected places. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film, but what there is reveals all kinds of things; Brandon’s attempt at seducing a girl in a bar, crossing all kinds of lines, and then mouthing off to her boyfriend, teases out more complicated layers of his character.
The cast is also excellent. Nicole Beharie, playing Marianne, Brandon’s colleague who he attempts to date, is loveliness itself; she is level-headed and kind, and treats Brandon with the sort of gentleness that he is neither used to nor, tragically, able to understand or cope with. Carey Mulligan is a revelation, playing a completely different role to what we usually see her in, and she invests Sissy with fragility and neediness, making her very easy to love.
The film, though, belongs to Michael Fassbender. In the hands of a lesser actor, Brandon would’ve been a very unsympathetic character, too distant to relate to; here, I found that I liked Brandon, a lot, and that made the film a little easier to navigate, despite the dark and desperate places it goes to. Fassbender’s face can convey a myriad of emotions with a mere flicker behind his eyes, (praise be for waterproof mascara, as he made me cry for the last ten minutes of the film) and the way that he strips Brandon’s character down, exposing everything that he is (literally, in the first two minutes) while caught in a vicious cycle that defeats his attempts to break free of it, is a masterclass in acting.
Despite the difficult subject matter, ‘Shame’ manages to show that ultimately, there is hope for Brandon (and Sissy), and that makes its end uplifiting, rather than tragic. McQueen managed the same trick in ‘Hunger’ – while Bobby Sands might have died a terrible death, he did so with his soul intact and his morals uncompromised. ‘Shame’ proves that no matter where we might find ourselves, or whatever desperate situations we find ourselves in, there is always a way out.