Wednesday, 5 February 2014
Steve McQueen // 2012 // 101 mins
Steve McQueen's Shame is a haunting venture into the darkest corners of one man's sex addiction and the way in which it threatens to unravel his comfortable lifestyle. Michael Fassbender is Brandon, a 30-something New Yorker with a successful career who spends his private life navigating a myriad of random hook-ups, prostitutes and porn. When his wayward younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and asks to stay indefinitely, Brandon's secret lifestyle comes under risk of exposure and spins out of control as tensions rise between the estranged siblings.
McQueen masterfully directs Brandon's story, and rather than creating a erotic drama that follows this man's many sexual encounters he focuses on the effect that this addiction has on him. Brandon is a man who strives for absolute control but has no self restraint, a man who outwardly projects a cool, controlled facade but internally wrestles with his unstable reliance on sexual activity. All of this is seen through a distanced lens that offers no engagement with Brandon and his actions. McQueen presents Brandon's behaviour in a very matter-of-fact manner that neither glamourises nor criticises and leaves room for personal interpretation and opinion.
The choice to avoid any extended involvement with this character on a deep or personal level places a profoundly difficult task on Michael Fassbender's shoulders and the actor succeeds in delivering a stunning, nuanced performance that exploits his great dramatic talent. Shame is a character study that refuses to explore it's character too deeply, showing this story at face value and leaving Fassbender alone to elicit any viewer engagement. He provides a depth for Brandon that the script intentionally avoids and while his character is too distanced and immoral to ever feel relatable, Fassbender does achieve a sympathy from the viewer in his portrayal. Brandon is charming and seductive but equally weak and paranoid and in delivering a performance that captures every facet of this self-destructive character Fassbender has become responsible for one of the best male performances of recent years.
Complimenting an incredible central performance is Carey Mulligan as Brandon's impulsive sister. Sissy is as broken as her brother but lacks his ability to conceal it and Mulligan is near unrecognisable in a role that shatters any chance of her maintaining a sweet, English rose image. She delivers a phenomenal performance in bringing to life a very well-written character and making her feel truly real. Where Brandon is restrained and cold Sissy feels like an explosion of palpable emotion and fragility, she is impulsive and immature and provides an intense contrast to Fassbender. Though there is an air of naive sweetness to Sissy, Mulligan is confident in exposing the darker suggestions of a character that may be just as immoral and manipulative as her brother. There is an intense chemistry between the pair that is witnessed in moments of prolonged eye contact or brief physical interactions and the way in which they balance each other out and bounce off of one another only makes their characters stories more engaging.
There is a strong and effective visual style that runs through Shame which shows McQueen's command over the medium. The films palette emphasises the cold detachment of it's character through the heavy use of whites and blues, while an occasional intervention of warmer golden hues are present during moments in which Brandon's facade slips and honest emotion or desire is briefly revealed. The theme of control is explored through composition and editing that favours long contemplative takes and meticulously framed shots that provide an unflinching exploration of Brandon's world. Once he succumbs to his intense desires these techniques are altered to reflect the change in his psyche to an equally successful effect. The deeper, personal insight that is refused us by the script is provided on a more subliminal level through the films technical proficiency.
This is a film much more concerned with the self-destructive effects of one man's sex addiction than the nature of the addiction itself. Shame takes a step back and watches this character's descent into indulgence and ruin, never passing judgement and refusing to engage. The pairing of McQueen's commanding direction with two honest, unflattering central performances makes for a powerful cinematic experience that grasps a difficult subject matter and creates something incredible.