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Film Review: Shame

Following their work on Hunger, anticipation was high for the next project from director Steve Mcqueen and actor Michael Fassbender. With the accolades rolling in for Shame and gossip already begun about the likelihood of Oscars, perhaps the anticipation was deserved.

Brandon (Fassbender) is a New York executive, who can’t control his sexual urges. When his erratic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) crashes his apartment for a protracted visit, his world spirals out of control and his calm veneer cracks.

Fassbender bears everything for this film, emotionally and physically. Brandon seems to have it all, but he’s never satisfied and the cravings become his life’s focal point. Sex addiction is rarely seen on screen but the great acting combined with the film’s non-judgemental manner, makes the situation easier to relate to.
His sister disrupts Brandon’s life so much because she’s his opposite and that produces the interest in their relationship. Sissy is an exhibitionist musician, who communicates her issues; Brandon tends to ignore both his and hers. He wants to control everything, whilst Sissy not only lacks any but also causes Brandon to lose his.

Beyond acting, director Steve Mcqueen balances numerous elements to give Shame its powerful graphic style. There are lots of close-ups and zoom-ins, which helps emphasise facial expressions beyond what is just said. Often contrasted with dark shadow filled shots of Brandon on his own in frame, furthering his sense of isolation. The film is not about banal set pieces but examining the characters, who are represented and personified in the film’s visual approach.

This is a brave film. In the US it received an NC-17 rating, often seen as commercial suicide and associated with nearly pornographic material. Although there is considerable sex and nudity throughout, it’s never depicted as romantic or titillating. For Brandon it’s simply a means to an end. Shame doesn’t take easy endings and it’s open to various readings, probably another reason for its “adult” description beyond just sexual content.

Even in the affluent area of New York seen in this film, it shows there could be a seedy underbelly beneath the surface nearby. Although principally about sexual obsession, the dependency shown in the film could be used to represent any addiction. It’s because of Michael Fassbender’s acting that we believe that Brandon continually needs to find new ways to get a fix, even if he ignores everything else. Shame will not be for everyone; it’s ambiguous, dark and doesn’t shy away from topics not often explored at the cinema. It simply says what it needs and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The reasons it’s problematic are likely also the reasons people should see it, and that’s something its creators can be proud of.

– Jon Bartholomew

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