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London Film Festival: Shame - Review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

STEVE McQueen’s Shame is every bit as fearless a piece of filmmaking as his critically-acclaimed debut Hunger and just as provocative and sometimes difficult to watch.

A candid, explicit yet emotionally sensitive portrayal of sex addiction, Shame isn’t afraid to lay its central character bare or put its viewers through the wringer. As such, those of a timid disposition or anyone easily offended had best stay away.

For those more adventurous souls, however, the film also presents an equally bold and powerful central performance from previous McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender, baring his soul and much more, as well as a potentially career-redefining one from Carey Mulligan.

It’s Fassbender, however, who takes centre-stage as 30-something Brandon, an Irish-born New Jersey-raised New Yorker who seemingly has the perfect life in the city: slick apartment, successful job, and an easy way with women.

But he’s also a sex addict… someone who looks for sex at every opportunity, whether it’s with the hot woman who catches his glance in a bar or from a prostitute. And if that can’t fulfil his needs, there’s online pornography or self-gratification in the men’s toilets at work. Almost everything he does is dictated by sex.

So, when his wayward, emotionally unstable sister Sissy (Mulligan) arrives at his apartment looking for a place to stay, it’s only a matter of time before Brandon begins to lose control.

McQueen’s film, though beautifully shot, is in many ways an ugly film to watch.

Brandon’s compulsion renders him emotionally impotent and often difficult to like.
He is a man clearly trying to manage his addiction and get some kind of grip, but each time we think he’s making progress (as in a rare romantic sequence involving a first date at a restaurant) something happens to pull the rug out from under both him and us.

And yet he remains a fascinating enigma… a complex riddle who is almost impossible to solve by virtue of McQueen’s and Abi Morgan’s sparse screenplay, which only hints at the troubles that may lie in both Brandon’s and Sissy’s pasts.

Not that this matters overly, for McQueen – as he proved with Hunger – isn’t one for spoon-feeding. He expects a certain intelligence from his audience and a maturity, therefore choosing to explore the here and now of Brandon’s existence (or the snapshot he provides).

Fassbender, though, ensures that Brandon remains as compulsive to watch as his addiction is for him. He inhabits the role through every pained expression and gut-wrenching choice. It’s another bravura turn from the actor, who is rightly being tipped for awards recognition.

Mulligan, meanwhile, proves an equally absorbing presence… a more outwardly unstable persona than Brandon who quite obviously shares a damaged (yet unexplained) past.

But while she has fewer scenes in which to build her character, she does so in the same raw, unflinching and sometimes naked manner as Fassbender.

A scene between the two of them, when they confront each other face to face, is genuinely intense and utterly gripping – performance cinema at its riveting, stripped down best. And evidence of how McQueen has the faith in his performers to allow for an extended take.

There are flaws, of course… the explicitness of certain individual moments could be called into question, as could elements of the conclusion, which exhibits the only real desperation to conform to some kind of conventional structure.

But even after that, McQueen and Fassbender combine to deliver a self-consciously ambiguous final scene that’s designed to keep you thinking, and which can be interpreted according to your own pre-dispositions.

Shame is therefore as brazen as it is challenging… a film that’s impossible to ‘enjoy’ in the conventional sense but which somehow manages to remain dangerously seductive. It’ll be one of the most talked about films of the festival.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 99mins
London Film Festival Premiere: October 14, 2011
UK Release Date: January 2011