In his long-awaited second feature, what does Shame has in common with Steve McQueen’s brilliant debut Hunger? Not only do both films feature an astounding performance by Michael Fassbender, but they also explore the damaged human body: one film explores it through hunger, and the other through sexual urges. Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a 30-something yuppie living in New York who is unable to control his sex life. However, his life is turned upside down when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), movies into his apartment.
After many Hollywood films which explored sex addiction in a ludicrous or hyper-active way such as David Cronenberg’s Crash or any early Michael Douglas flick, McQueen presents a realistic portrayal of a sex addict and the challenges one has to face, both personally and professionally. Like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, the character of Brandon is a well-suited organised individual who has a pristine apartment, a well-paid job and a love of classical music: the perfect bachelor’s life. However, unlike the murderous side of Bateman, Brandon’s somewhat duel life is an uncontrollable desire for sex, which even involves masturbating in bathrooms and looking at live nude web chats.
The unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy, who has problems of her own, creates conflicts for Brandon’s organised and yet flawed life, and that’s as far as the story goes. Along with The Iron Lady screenwriter Abi Morgan, McQueen is more fascinated in character interactions as best established in Brandon’s first actual date with a co-worker and seeing the difficulty of Brandon trying to resist his urges. This sequence, along with others including the love/hate sibling relationship, are done in single shots, of which the director previously used in Hunger, in order to encapsulate all the intensity in a single image.
Since his breakthrough performance as Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender has continued to shine in numerous roles and in the case of Shame, he surely deserves an Oscar nomination. Despite presenting himself as a suave sophisticated man that will hopefully appeal to the opposite sex, there is a rage wanting to come out whenever it doesn’t go to plan and certainly his sister’s actions makes it, in his terms, worse. From the film’s very first image, Fassbender is doing a physical performance, in as much as his naked body is displayed through out, particularly in the various sex scenes which will be disturbing for some. As with her on-screen brother, Carey is doing a naked performance, as well as being left-field to what we usually see from Mulligan’s repertoire, but more importantly, even during the bleakness of the story, Mulligan singing “New York, New York” has never been so uplifting.
Whilst it will be uncomfortable for some due to its racy content, Steve McQueen presents a brave examination of a sex addict’s dysfunctional life, featuring another astonishing performance by Michael Fassbender, along with a bratty Carey Mulligan.
DIRECTOR: STEVE MCQUEEN
SCREENWRITERS: STEVEN MCQUEEN, ABI MORGAN
STARRING: MICHAEL FASSBENDER, CAREY MULLIGAN, JAMES BADGE DALE
RUNTIME: 101 MINS
COUNTRY: UNITED KINGDOM