Led by a couple of masterful performances, Shame is a powerful, confronting and heartbreaking film about a man under the thrall of his sex addiction. The film kind of does for sex what Requiem for a Dream did for drugs, and there’s nothing particularly sensual about any of the couplings on display here. The fantastic ten minute opening montage focuses on the drudgery of addiction. We see Brandon Sullivan’s (Michael Fassbender) cycle of craving/binging as it repeats over and over. His is a lonely existence, and he seems mostly friendless except for the times when he goes out for drinks with his lecherous boss. It’s when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay that this day-in, day-out rhythm is threatened, however.
Shame is a confronting film in many ways, yet never feels gratuitous. As a character study, it paints an incredible portrait of a man completely under the sway of his own addiction. Fassbender has always been a great performer, but here he’s allowed to truly let loose. Mulligan is his equal, however, and the scenes between the two of them are the best moments in the film. As depressing at things gets, it’s their (continually strained) bond that keeps the film afloat. If it weren’t for this, the film would be nothing but a hundred minute miseryfest.
The cinematography is stunning. Half of the film takes place within his office, and this in combination with his sparse apartment and solitary existence puts me in mind of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman (except, you know, without all the killing and such). Harry Escott’s score vividly complements the cinematography and provides the film with some of its most impressive sequences.
The fact that such a strong film deals with a rarely touched upon topic makes for an incredible movie experience. Whilst he is to some extent at the mercy of his addiction, there’s nothing predatory about Brandon’s behaviour. Like some kind of sixth sense, he can instantly tell when someone else is up for a quickie, and it makes for an interesting comparison with his boss, whose sleazy attitude quickly turns everyone around him off. That writer Abi Morgan, writer/director Steve McQueen and Fassbender manage to make Brandon somewhat likeable is a staggering achievement. As depressing and/or pathetic as it is to watch him responding to his cravings, it’s still possible to feel sympathy for the man.
Shame is a bold and bleak tragedy of sorts, yet there are several touching moments that stop it from becoming a soul-destroying experience akin to Dancer in the Dark or the aforementioned Requiem for a Dream. It’s another feather in the cap of Fassbender, whose stardom seems forever on the rise, and whilst Mulligan is yet to play a superhero, it’s clear that her status is on the rise also. The film does threaten to drag once or twice, and could have had five to ten minutes cut from the running time, but for the most part this is a brilliant film and bound to be one of the best of the year.Rating: