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.