Oh well, here goes. I’m wary about writing this review because it’s the worst kind of review to write. Shame has been put on a pedestal by critics and praised as a work of genius but here’s ignorant little me, someone who just thought it was okay. Am I missing something that everyone else got? Have some little touches and recurring motifs sailed right over my head? Am I just too dumb and undeserving to get the most out of the experience? Those rushing to defend the film will, no doubt, think me guilty of one, or more, of these things. I guess this is my only chance to prove them wrong.
Shame is, as you may already be aware, all about sex addiction. Michael Fassbender, in an absolutely fantastic and fantastically courageous performance, plays Brandon Sullivan. Brandon, more so than most men, finds that his life is ruled by the head in his underpants rather than the one on his shoulders. He hires hookers, watches LOTS of pornography whenever possible and sneaks off to the restroom at work when he needs to release some tension, to put it nicely. He does well at work, gets on well with his boss (David, played by James Badge Dale) and can be quite the charmer with women. But it doesn’t provide him with the same buzz that sex does. So he does what he does, despite the frustration that his addiction brings him along with the all-too-fleeting pleasure. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, also giving a fantastic performance), turns up on his doorstep and pleads to stay on the sofa for a while then life becomes harder and harder for Brandon (no pun intended).
What is most admirable about Shame is the serious tone that is pretty much kept throughout. Sex addiction is something all too often dismissed or joked about but it IS an addiction, as all-consuming and painful as any other. The script by Abi Morgan and director Steve McQueen provides a good foundation for the movie but everything is improved by the style of the movie and the disarmingly raw performances from Fassbender and Mulligan. There are moments when the dynamic is a simple brother and sister one, other times when they show how different from each other they are and even times when their differences look set to lead somewhere very disturbing and uncomfortable indeed. Brandon needs sex and rejects any emotional attachment while Sissy craves something more but will use sex to, hopefully, get that. Both individuals are equally sad and desperate in different ways.
James Badge Dale is also very good as the boss who likes to try his luck with any beautiful woman he sees but the other star of the movie is, undoubtedly, Nicole Beharie as Marianne, a pretty colleague who Brandon fantasises about and likes yet also keeps distant from. Marianne likes Brandon and has no fanciful ideas about what they both want but she also puts some effort into making a connection and developing something more, an act that inevitably confuses and disturbs Brandon.
There is a lot of clever stuff going on in this movie, from the numerous moments of ambiguity throughout (a lot of the scenes are open to interpretation depending on the particular viewpoint of the person watching the movie, though I wouldn’t really like to be sitting beside someone who thinks the whole thing is “a dream come true for most guys”) to the sheer wealth of information and emotion in almost every expression. There are even a couple of moments worthy of being compared to the work of David Lynch (one being a night of debauchery that seems quite nightmarish and the other being a wonderful rendition of “New York, New York” by Sissy). McQueen can definitely put together some fine shots and certainly knows how to get the very best out of talented folk. Sadly, he doesn’t really bring everything together in a way that feels at all cohesive. The moments with the camera holding on a face or focusing on an exchange of looks between two people are fine and the choice to hold shots for that little bit extra and to make the audience uncomfortable is also fine. But it’s not fine to keep doing it throughout the whole movie and to add so many moments, either in the straight telling of the tale or in the editing, that fail to prove just why they warrant inclusion. Even the wonderful scene mentioned above, in which “New York, New York” is sung, feels like too much for too long. It brings the whole movie grinding to a halt even while it also provides Carey Mulligan with her finest scene.
The praise will keep piling up for Shame, I’m sure of that, and I’m definitely onside with the compliments being offered to the stars but I won’t be adding too much of my own. It’s a good film but, for me, it falls far short of the magnificent work of art that some have labelled it and I find it slightly hypocritical that the movie has been so highly praised by the very same critics who so harshly dismissed, the thematically similiar, A Serbian Film (and, yes, I’m well aware that I’m going to get a whole load of criticism for ending with that unpopular opinion).
Shame hits UK cinema screens on Friday January 13th and is certainly worth viewing and making up your own mind about.
DIRECTOR: STEVE MCQUEEN
WRITER: ABI MORGAN, STEVE MCQUEEN
STARS: MICHAEL FASSBENDER, CAREY MULLIGAN, JAMES BADGE DALE, NICOLE BEHARIE, LUCY WALTERS
RUNTIME: 101 MINS APPROX