It takes real courage for a filmmaker these days to not treat the camera as an invasive tool. Looking at all the popular films of late, from The Social Network to The Dictator, it’s become less a representation of a character and more a means of showing how attractive the main star is. Of course this is nothing new. One has to almost look to the independents for a more restrained point of view and less of a focus on the physical beauty but even then it’s arguable this is due to budget constraints quite often. Filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson are good examples of directors confident in their ability to create something for the camera to witness, not simply just capture, and this is where Steve McQueen sits with his latest – the excruciatingly mesmerising Shame. Having previously collaborated with Michael Fassbender on the acclaimed IRA hunger strike drama Hunger (no relation to the Knut Hamsun novel), McQueen returns with Shame, the story about Brandon, a New Yorker whose job isn’t clearly defined beyond administration and who suffers from sex addiction. Suffer may not be the most appropriate word given the immediate reaction of what a sheer joy that must be however it has become a very serious issue in recent times with Tiger Woods and David Duchovny et al being diagnosed with the, dare I say it, disease. McQueen approaches the subject matter he co-wrote with Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, The Iron Lady) with very mature, sympathetic hands and delivers one of the finest films of last year. (It only debuted in Australia early this year.)
Fassbender, one of the finest actors of now plays sex-addicted Brandon and it’s a doors-open policy, going so far as to see him walk around completely naked briefly and urinating into the toilet. The policy is only fair given the way he treats and views women – as warm bodied sex objects and nothing else. Indeed, the opening sequence is a school in editing, intercutting his innocent train journey to work with disturbing moments of watching internet pornography and inviting prostitutes into his high-rise apartment. Sharing glances with an attractive girl that seems to be a constant game of will-she-won’t-she have sex with him (later on), the girl eventually reveals her wedding band and hurries to escape his almost stalkerish advances before doing something she will later regret. For Brandon however this is just the start of another day that’s later to be filled with more pornography and further masturbation into the work toilets. One day he arrives home to find his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan in what will be one of the best performances of her career) has moved in because a previous lover has kicked her out of her apartment. Initially accepting of her sudden arrival through gritted teeth he begins to grow increasingly violent and frustrated as his carefully constructed world is no longer the safe haven it once was.
Shame has lost nothing on the small screen. I first viewed this upon release in the cinema – in the very front row, no less – and the film has only become better with a repeat screening. The subject matter is dirty and the tension is often sickeningly unbearable but these are qualities that need to be applauded in cinema. Too many filmmakers don’t care about creating real tension with their audience, instead choosing to go with the much-easier shock method, generally gore. McQueen perfectly translates Brandon’s ill mind through the screen with a slow, stationary camera that only serves to heighten the mood. This was most effective in a scene where having grown increasingly sick of her appearance he almost beats her up, frightening himself in the process as to how far in the deep end he really is.
A film filled with exciting moments, the restaurant scene is particularly notable for it only being one take – and a long one at that – that establishes McQueen as a director to watch for being able to command such great performances from all his actors without resorting to post-production to clean it up. If there was anything I could complain about (and this is a very minor complaint) the final sex scene goes on for a little too long to the point of being exploitation and sheer pornography itself though I imagine this is the point McQueen was trying to make. The soundtrack is largely absent with only minor interludes that are fortunately very unobtrusive, so much so that I didn’t notice a few pieces until it was a few bars in.
The review DVD copy I received had no extras and the blu ray is said to contain a few interviews with the cast and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Shame will be released on DVD and blu ray in Australia from 6th June and will be available on Australian iTunes VOD from the same date. It is already available to purchase in the US.