Steve McQueen (no not that one) is clearly a director who is comfortable with making people uncomfortable. In his second collaboration with Michael Fassbender after their powerful IRA drama Hunger, now with Shame they tackle the subject of addiction.
There are countless films about drugs and alcoholism but significantly less about the problem of sexual addiction, an issue that seems to be dismissed much more easily than others. Fassbender plays Brandon, a seemingly together New York businessman. In the opening scenes we see his routine pan out, various one night stands, encounters with prostitutes and voicemail messages from someone we later find out is his sister that are repeatedly ignored. These scenes are intercut with an intensely charged moment on the subway in which Brandon watches a young woman whose expression slowly turns from interest to discomfort under his predatory gaze.
When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced to stay with him, his routine is disrupted putting him under considerable strain. Sissy is volatile, damaged and is determined to reconnect with her brother ‘We’re family, we’re supposed to look out for each other’ she says at one point to which Brandon replies that she is a burden on him. Mulligan’s performance is poignant, fractured and quite different from anything she has done before. Her and Brandon’s difficult relationship is the most engaging aspect of the film and though we never quite find out what happened it is clear they have had a difficult past. Sissy wants to be close to the person who has shared her experience and craves attention from Brandon as much as he wants to be left alone though her frequent attempts to provoke him only cause him to withdraw from her more. The one time they have a genuine connection is during her heartbreakingly melancholic rendition of New York New York in a club, which causes Brandon to cry, though by the time she returns to their table he is as distant as ever.
The sex scenes are tastefully shot and though there are many scenes involving nudity, it does not feel gratuitous as it is necessary to see just how desperate Brandon’s addiction is. Fassbender’s raw performance is astounding and someone who could easily have turned into a repellent character is kept human and flawed. You sympathise with him as he attempts to form a healthy relationship with a work colleague, we see his nervousness in their first date and his frustration as struggles to get closer to her. His inability to confide in anyone makes his shame and guilt even more potent.
Shame is not a film that will appeal to everyone’s tastes by any means, the pacing is fairly slow and McQueens signature long shots may grate on some people. Despite gaining excellent reviews, its intensity proved too controversial for the Academy, who snubbed it completely at the Oscars, even Fassbender whose performance is devastating. It is not an enjoyable watch and is intentionally uncomfortable but it raises extremely interesting questions about the nature and guilt of addiction and the harrowing performances of the two leads make this a compelling drama.