In Shame Steve McQueen directs Michael Fassbender as sex addict Brandon, a man who is forced to take a second look at the way he lives his life during a visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), as he finds they have too much in common when it comes to their attitudes to sex.
Shame has been a popular topic for discussion for months, and we certainly weren’t immune, not for the assured acting or dazzling direction on display, but for the (frankly intimidating) full frontal nudity and apparently endless sex scenes. Having now actually seen the film I was surprised to find that the sex wasn’t such a huge presence throughout, yes there was plenty there but it never felt excessive or unnecessary. McQueen also made a good job of filming the sex in a static, matter-of-fact manner without the soft focus and close-ups of body parts we’re so familiar with. Only one particularly sleazy sex scene towards the end is given the glossy treatment, but is all so seedy and Fassbender looks so miserable that it can’t be described as titillating.
On the subject of McQueen’s direction, isn’t it gorgeous? The film is filled with stunning shots with some inspired camera placements (bear with me). Often in Shame the camera remains still throughout a scene, allowing the action to play out around it whether fully on-screen or not. At various points the camera is left behind the heads of two characters as they talk, this seemingly bizarre choice is well-judged. By having the audience essentially lurking in the room behind the characters McQueen makes the actions on-screen seem all the more real and transforms the viewer from an audience member into a trespassing voyeur. Editing can often serve to distance us from a film, but leave us standing just behind a couple on a station platform and we could just as easily be eavesdropping on a conversation out in the real world.
As the damaged pair of siblings, Fassbender and Mulligan are both playing characters hiding their fragile underbelly. Mulligan as Sissy is an outwardly outgoing individual masking her internal suffering while Fassbender’s Brandon is a more reserved soul, seemingly completely in control while unable to tame his libido. Powerful acting from two of Britain’s future national treasures. My biggest worry with Shame was that I would find it hard to empathise with an oversexed Lothario but gradually Fassbender managed to coax some sympathy from me. While I was never exactly rooting for Brandon, by the closing credits he had earned my pity at the very least. Curse you Fassbender, you got me in the end.
Stunning, provocative and surprisingly emotive; Shame is a film which keeps its cards close to its chest and never truly lets you in as it has its way with you. Go and see it, just not with your nan.