Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
Runtime: 99 mins.
Australian release date: 9 February 2012
Previewed at: Reel Room, Sydney, on 2 February 2012
The title of this film sets the tone for the story, which is at times utterly depressing and claustrophobic. You are drawn into the world of dysfunctional siblings, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who are polar opposites. Brandon is incapable of forming a close relationship with anyone; he is addicted to sex, be it via the internet, paying prostitutes or the occasional brief encounter. Sissy, on the other hand, is desperately needy, constantly seeking companionship and craving to be hugged, to feel wanted, as a way of validating her existence.
Set in a very cool, impersonal Manhattan, captured brilliantly by cinematographer Sean Bobbit, the film takes the viewer on a journey with Brandon as he appears to unravel before our eyes. His sister’s arrival on his doorstep (he reluctantly allows her to stay with him, “for a few days”), adds fuel to his already chaotic world. On the surface he has a decent apartment, a pretty good job and a social life; however, there always seems to be something sinister lurking in his background. The fact that McQueen doesn’t spell it out for us adds to the air of mystery.
Sissy is a cabaret singer who gives a splendid performance of a pared down ‘New York, New York’ during the film. Most directors would have presented an edited version of such a long song, classic or not, but not McQueen - as with many of his takes, he is not afraid to leave the camera rolling and the effect is simply stunning. This is Carey Mulligan’s best role to date and that’s pretty impressive when you reflect on some of her previous work.
The performances of both Fassbender and Mulligan are pitch perfect and credit must also go to James Badge Gale as David, Brandon’s boss, who plays an executive with a predilection for hanging out in bars trying to score with women while his family sits waiting for him to come home. He is another dysfunctional character swimming in the same (cess?) pool. One of the most ‘normal’ people in the film is Marianne, who goes on a date with Brandon and is thus exposed to his foibles. Nicole Beharie gives a very watchable performance in this role, playing someone who, like us, is just trying to figure this guy out.
Shame is a scorching re-union between Fassbender and McQueen. McQueen strips Fassbender to the core, both physically and emotionally - the result is a performance that leaves you reeling. It is going to be interesting to see if the Academy Awards acknowledge what has to be one of THE performances of the year. I doubt that this will happen as the sexual content of this film, which is extremely confronting, may mean it doesn’t get a look-in. Go with the British response on this one. As Empire magazine wrote, it is indeed “the most provocative and compelling film of the year”. It got me thinking, what would this script have been like if Rainer Werner Fassbinder had directed US actor Steve McQueen in the role of Brandon?