Films Of 2012 - No. 2
Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen)
Michael Fassbender has slowly built a reputation as a very talented performer from stand out performances in blockbusters (Prometheus, X-Men First Class) to critically praised work in independent films (Fish Tank, Hunger). He's one of the most sought after actors in the world right now (take a look at his upcoming projects if you don't believe me) and his staggering performance in Shame is a magnificent showcase of his talents.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a handsome, successful young man living in New York. Behind this seemingly idyllic lifestyle, Brandon harbours a secret sex addiction which has control of his personal and social life. One night stands, a wealth of explicit material and a strict routine have given his life a sense of structure and discipline. This lifestyle is disrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy who brings her own troubles to Brandon's doorstep.
Shame is a devastating glimpse of a man living with a crippling addiction. Addiction and not perversion. Steve McQueen treats Brandon's troubles as many other films have treated drug or alcohol addiction. The film examines how this addiction has prevented Brandon from forming any emotional relationships. In his mind sex doesn't involve an emotional connection, he barely seems to enjoy any of the sexual encounters in the film. These scenes, whilst very graphic, are not in any way erotic. They show a character feeding his addiction. During the film Brandon begins to date a co-worker, but this shows how he can't cope with a relationship that is both physical and sexual. Brandon attempts to combat his loneliness and self-loathing through sex only to come crashing down after the act, leaving him hungry for his next fix.
Brandon's loneliness is fuelled (or certainly not aided) by the city he lives in. McQueen shows New York to be the enormous place that it is and how easy it is to be alone when surrounded by so many people. The arrival of his sister Sissy throws a grenade into Brandon's lifestyle and also drives the film's narrative strands. Carey Mulligan is outstanding as Sissy, displaying a strange charming innocence to gloss her own problems. Mulligan received a BAFTA nomination for her role in Drive but this is the meatier, better role and more deserving of a nomination. She gives a beautiful rendition of "New York, New York" in a key scene. McQueen stays with Mulligan for over 4 minutes, only cutting away to show Brandon's reaction. It's beautifully simple and indicates that there might be hope for Brandon and Sissy in their dysfunctional relationship.
Crucially, McQueen doesn't attempt to explain how Brandon and Sissy came to be the people they are but hints at what the cause of their troubles might be. This may frustrate some but I can imagine that any explanation would dissatisfy a large portion of the audience. Harry Escott's score is overblown and Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is crisp and glamorous. Steve McQueen's direction is elegant and uncomplicated, consisting of long takes and precise set ups. Shame's striking colour palette avoids the sometimes grimy and "realistic" look that addiction films tend to have.
Shame is an unapologetically grand piece of film making. It may have been overlooked by the major Hollywood awards (thanks in part to the stigma attached to the NC-17 rating) but I'm sure it will be remembered in years to for its early performance from Michael Fassbender, Oscar winner.