Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen team up for the first time since Hunger to produce a stark, bleak and thoroughly brilliant portrait of sex addiction.

McQueen is first and foremost an artist. Throughout his career he has produced numerous award-winning shorts, culminating in him scooping the illustrious Turner Prize in 1999. Since then he has shifted his interests to feature films. Hunger was a superb debut – the story of politically motivated hunger-striker Bobby Sands gripped audiences with its sparse visuals and committed acting. Now, McQueen has once again ventured into the territory of human extremes, taking on a much maligned and largely ignored condition.

Sex addiction, while prominent in the media in recent years, has yet to be accepted as a serious topic by the general public, on par with alcoholism or drug abuse. In a deliberately incisive move, McQueen has taken a no holds barred approach to the portrayal of his protagonist Brandon, a successful New York businessman who is crippled by his dependancy.

Brandon’s life is ruled by his addiction. In many ways he is merely a passenger in his own existence, travelling through the day-to-day with regimented routines of self-gratification, online pornography and prostitution. The sex itself is never sexy, it is necessity rather than pleasure.

However, his calculated world is thrown into disarray by the arrival of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan. Like Brandon it is apparent that she is a distressed personality, but in her it manifests differently – she is manic, changeable and prone to spontaneous actions. She polarises Brandon, thus when he allows her to stay for a short while she impacts on his life in a dramatic fashion. “You come in here and you’re a burden on me,” he states, and that burden quickly becomes unbearable.

As was the case with Hunger, Shame is stunningly crafted, but it surpasses its predecessor in almost every aspect. Abi Morgan, who co-wrote the screenplay with McQueen, has delivered a script that is minimalist and sharp. The acting is impeccable, Mulligan and James Badge Dale put in excellent supporting turns, but it is Fassbender who steals the show. His depiction of a tortured soul, a hollow human being who lives and breathes his addiction is nigh on perfect. It’s a thoroughly believable portrayal, full of empathy without ever resorting to tragedy.

A third aspect of the production that shines is McQueen’s unfaltering direction. He favours the long-take, that is made very clear, and he proves him self to be a master of that particular technique. There are numerous lengthy scenes delivered with a minimum of cuts – overall the film contains a premium of scenes – but there are two standouts: In one, Carey Mulligan sings  a haunting rendition of ‘New York, New York’ to a high-class bar, focusing her attention on her brother Brandon who is visually moved. In another, Brandon goes on a run through the streets of his city – filmed in one shot of constant movement, it is an ambitious stroke of genius. Apparently the latter took four takes to get right, boy was it worth it.

While McQueen’s directorial hand would seem unsurmountable as a creative influence on the finished product, there is one other element that shines so brightly it is blinding – Harry Escott’s score. A sweeping symphony of painfully emotional orchestra music, the soundtrack exists simultaneously with the film, rather than as an accompaniment. Magnificent and haunting, it fuels almost every scene with an extra layer of intensity. The scenes that do not contain the score utilise silence to a similar end, emphasising the film’s minimalism. At its height Escott’s music overlaps with incidental music, the thumping disco beats of a lurid nightclub, a technique used to brilliant effect in several of the best pictures of recent years (Animal Kingdom, Enter The Void).

As much as Shame is about the individual, the character of Brandon, it is also about the city. New York is depicted to be a mesh of isolated figures, interconnected by technology but distanced by a lack of traditional social interaction. It’s not necessarily a critique, more of an observation. Brandon’s character may seem extreme but who are we to say how many similar figures inhabit the streets around us?

Challenging and thematically original, Steve McQueen has created an evocative masterwork that will live long in the memory of those willing to take on its difficult subject matter. If it strikes the right chord it is liable to chew you up and spit you out as a different person on the other side.

Shame is beautiful simplicity, emotional torment, devastating cinema.

Tom Grater

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11 Comments

  1. Kat
    January 12, 2012 at 15:10 — Reply

    This review picks out the most striking bits of Shame well – who wrote it? Mcqueen is a great director. But I would never have given it 5 stars. Fassbender is outstanding, that’s for sure. And it’s definitely an impressive work of art. But bits of it fell short for me – those long takes lacked something substantial. And although I love Carey Mulligan, I could feel the New York song should have been powerful, but all I could think about was that her singing wasn’t great – her voice hasn’t got the right quality to make it breathtaking.

    Is it deliberate that this review doesn’t talk about how massively pornographic it is? I found it really uncomfortable to watch. Even if technically it wasn’t sex, some of the more risque foreplay was clearly ‘real’ in the physical sense. The way some of it was filmed was pretty raw. It’s quite unusual in that sense…

  2. January 12, 2012 at 15:19 — Reply

    Forgot to add my name, thanks. I wouldn’t agree with the label pornographic – that implies the sex scenes were done for the purpose of eroticism, which they definitely weren’t. I’ve noted the content (self-gratification, online pornography and prostitution), but I’ve refrained from being too explicit because it may put people off. If you can’t stomach it, Shame may not be for you, but it’s really not about the nudity or sex. It carries an 18 certificate, which should instruct audiences appropriately, and I believe that the majority of audiences will have seen more risque content on screen before.

    Where you say ‘uncomfortable’, I think that’s really the point of the sex. It’s not a snug film that you can cosy up to and enjoy – it’s affecting, bleak and at times difficult to watch. To me, those are plaudits.

    I disagree about the long takes lacking substance and Mulligan’s signing.

  3. January 12, 2012 at 15:30 — Reply

    I agree with the 5 stars. Nice review, Tom.

    McQueen, I believe is very accomplished in his direction and whilst there are some uncomfortable or graphic scenes, they are all essential to creating the tone of the film: after all, it is about the inner demons that haunt a sex addict.

    Neither would I say it is massively pornographic. Granted, I wouldn’t like to watch it with my parents but I wasn’t ever shocked or appalled by the sexual content. The emotion portrayed was indeed raw, but the sex scenes were all contextually justified.

    I also found Sissy’s New York, New York rendition subtly powerful. Her voice isn’t strong, but it’s the emptiness and sorrow within the performance that is striking, as well as McQueen’s fixed camera on her throughout.

    For the record, I also gave SHAME 5 stars, too: http://thelittlestpictureshow.blogspot.com/2011/12/review-shame.html

  4. @Mrfilmlover
    January 12, 2012 at 15:59 — Reply

    I think we live in a very sexualised society and to be shocked by what we see on screen is a testament to the film, more especially because it’s not mindless violence or hardcore pornography. I think a lot of the ‘risqué’ scenes were done tastefully, and left something to the imagination. Sex, being such a taboo subject is, in my opinion, the very essence of the film. Who can Brandon talk to without the SHAME of his addiction flooding through? His sister brings these unwanted memories back and the song is metaphorical of the escapism and lack of it, even in such a big city like New York.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film and thought Tom’s review does a very good job in illustrating the film accurately without drawing people away by stigmatising it as a “pornographic” movie. Kudos Tom.

  5. Kat
    January 13, 2012 at 12:53 — Reply

    Hmmm yes, ok I think ‘pornographic’ is the wrong word. I think I meant explicit – a lot of it felt closer to porn that to the average sex scene in a film. It is full on sex, there’s not much soft focus pink, it’s people doing pretty graphic things. And I’m not sure you need that to explore inner demons. It’s like that argument about do you need to see heavy violence for it to have its effect, like when the camera pans away from the ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs. In Shame, the exploration of addiction was done elsewhere, very subtly and beautifully in places. But all that sex, did you need it to understand Brandon’s torment?

    Don’t get me wrong, I like films that deal with difficult, uncomfortable things. But if you’re watching a film about drug addiction, do you need lots of different shots of the needle going in to understand what it does to someone’s life?

  6. January 13, 2012 at 14:00 — Reply

    I think it’s the style of McQueen’s direction. He’s not one to beat about the bush (not a pun) – if he wants to show something he’ll show it in its true light. He likes to make his audience feel uncomfortable when watching uncomfortable topics, and to be tactful would be compromise. It’s like what he said in the Q&A – An audience member quizzed him on the full-frontal nudity and how comfortable the actors were with doing that. He said that he wouldn’t want to work with an actor who wouldn’t do that because it’s not committed, it’s not true to the film.

  7. Kat
    January 13, 2012 at 14:36 — Reply

    Very true, clearly I’m not converted but it’s a strong style. Although I do want to see Hunger now. He’s a powerful director. That Q&A was brilliant – Abi Morgan’s comments made me appreciate a lot about the film that I would have overlooked.

  8. January 13, 2012 at 15:32 — Reply

    You should definitely watch that, it’s excellent. There’s one particularly brilliant scene that captures a lot of McQueen’s style.

  9. January 13, 2012 at 21:17 — Reply

    Great review, Tom. Hit the nail on the head on every aspect of this incredible film. Truly is a work of art as far as I’m concerned.

    As expected (and not undeservedly) Fassbender is taking the lion’s share of the praise for this film, but I really have to give credit to Carey Mulligan. For me, this was her best performance yet; just like Fassbender, it was like she’d laid everything bare, she captured the vulnerability of the character so well, that it was, at times, devastating to watch the two of them together, clearly so lost. I was particularly moved by her singing scene, not because she’s an exceptionally talented singer (she was pretty good though), but because it really seemed to add to the whole fragility of her performance.

    The soundtrack was stunning as well. Definitely knocked Drive off my top spot for favourite soundtracks of last year. Genuinely can’t wait to see what McQueen does next.

  10. January 14, 2012 at 02:14 — Reply

    Thanks for the input Josh, I’m the same with the soundtrack and I also think that it’s my favourite Mulligan performance.

  11. Anon
    January 23, 2012 at 23:18 — Reply

    Yeah I think its hard to say whether its a four or five star dependent on can you watch it again. Great review, I would say that the score, which It thought also had piano, was good but to be honest wasn’t anything beyond your average score. For me sound wise you should have mentioned the constant juxtaposition of Brandon’s panting, I thought that was far more affecting.
    Not sure about the bit about the score and contrapuntal music, didnt even notice it.
    Also I don’t think the long takes, particularly the running scene, were that amazing either or standout. In a time where long takes are short hand for atmosphere I felt that it was a bit of an old trick and didn’t make the slightest difference in most cases. I’m sure you’ve seen long take running sequences in your average Will Smith or action film. It didn’t feel that prominent for me particulalry when you see their more daring use in films such as Children of men or even Hunger but not really here. Just some points, otherwise very good.

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