With Hunger, Brit director Steve Mcqueen had the strong foundations of a real life event to draw upon. His reconstruction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison cell was startlingly realised and uncompromising for a first time filmmaker. In Shame, he and co writer Abi Morgan have conjured an original story between them, and now we see McQueen working on his own initiative. Shame is another visually striking, stark and chilly film, this time centering on the topic of sex addiction.
Refreshingly, this is a film that doesn’t clutter itself with unnecessary sub threads or issues. It is simply trying to reflect the existence of someone suffering from the condition in the most effective way possible. McQueen and Morgan acknowledge this is an important issue and, perhaps, with the domination of the internet, a burgeoning concept.
The main players are Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) two Irish American siblings in New York. Brandon is a high flying, attractive city worker with a pristeen apartment, while Sissy is a nomadic wild child who drops back into his life unexpectedly. We are quickly informed of their characters; Brandon is a sex addict, a compulsive user of pornography, prostitutes and flings, while Sissy is loose and craves attention. It is clear that something in their background had informed their unfortunate way of living, but we are barely given any hints.
Mulligan is good in her role, but Fassbender is towering. At turns charismatic, pathetic, tortured, and confused, Fassbender is De Niro like in his commitment to the role. You’d have trouble finding a current Hollywood actor willing to put themselves on show as nakedly as Fassbender does here. While his life seems stable and even flourishing, McQueen reveals Brandon as someone unable to practice intimacy, and in his sharp dress and minimalist apartment, someone unwilling to let go. This is perhaps where the film can relate to a wider audience.
Visually McQueen does not quite hit the heights of his previous effort, perhaps reining the stylistic flourishes in to focus more on the characters. Having said that, there is a terrific extended track across the nighttime streets, and like Hunger, the mise en scene is often almost Kubrickian in its sterility. While Shame is a difficult film to love, it transcends its original aim of reflecting sex addiction to create an authentic portrait of two people who are isolated and quietly struggling to function in society.