Shame

Shame

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Artist-turned-director Steve McQueen is interested in appetites and the control of them. In Hunger, he examined this in the most literal sense - exploring the mind-over-body strength of Bobby Sands as he succeeded in subjugating that most basic of instincts in order to maintain the hunger strike that would eventually kill him. In Shame, he and co-writer Abi Morgan come at the mind/body tug-of-war from its flipside, this time examining what happens to his fictional anti-hero Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who cannot gain mental dominance over or restraint of his sexual gluttony.

Living a solitary existence in New York, shuttling from his apartment to work and back again, Brandon's neat-freak tendencies initially recall American Psycho. Thankfully, however, McQueen's character is considerably more complex and much less murderous - with his chief concern being sex and how to get it. Thanks to his good looks and high-end job, this doesn't present much of a problem, at least physically. McQueen's film is sexually explicit but each act of copulation is stripped of erotic frisson, as any release it offers is depressingly fleeting. That Brandon's life is an empty one with few connections is clear but McQueen is keen not to condemn him on moral grounds. In fact, the shame of the title is a long way from Brandon's mind - on a conscious level, at any rate - as it takes two to create that sort of emotion and he never lets anyone close enough to his world.

Copy picture

Or at least he doesn't until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep with nowhere to go and fragility to the fore. In emotional terms, she is his polar opposite, being desperate for human connections that go beyond the physical, although more than willing to use her body if she thinks one will lead to the other. She is, at once, untouchable in terms of sex - Brandon's usual manner of connection with women - and yet emotionally desperate, meaning her presence in his life is like a ticking time bomb marking out Brandon's steps on the road to 'shame' and all that attends it.

"We're not bad people," says Sissy. "We just come from a bad place."

Exactly where or what that place is remains hinted at rather than explained - which may prove frustrating for some - but its echoes ring loud and clear. This is New York in a minor key, where even the Frank Sinatra tribute to it is rendered not with the rush of expectation for the city that never sleeps but as an aching air of longing to "be a part of it" even as tears of awareness that this can never be run gently down a cheek.

Fassbender and Mulligan burn white hot as the central pairing, their emotional maelstrom magnetic even when no dialogue is used and Nicole Beharie deserves special mention for her heart-rending turn as Brandon's colleague with romantic aspirations. Although as philosophically and morally fascinating as his last film, the more traditional narrative arc of Shame - while possibly making it more attractive to audiences - results in a physical climax that feels somewhat overblown in comparison with what has gone before. Still, this is for the most part a masterfully measured slice of cinema that gives you questions to chew on for a long time afterwards.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2011
Share this with others on...
Shame packshot
A thirtysomething finds his life spiral out of control after his sister moves into his apartment.
Amazon link

Read more Shame reviews:

Anton Bitel ****


Search database: