Never one to shy away from challenging subject-matter, the Director of 2008’s multiple award-winning Hunger, opens his follow-up with full frontals. A naked Michael Fassbender is sprawled across a bed before roaming around his flat in the buff, ignoring imploring answer machine messages from his sister. His digs are sparse giving little away, representing his closed character.

McQueen’s lead, Brandon (Fassbender), believes “actions count, not words” and lives a double life, dutifully showing up for a respectable day at work and feeding his unhealthy sexual appetite behind closed doors with prostitutes, porn sites and toilet cubicle quickies. Through facial expressions Fassbender makes it clear Brandon is uncomfortable with his  voracious sexuality, helpfully reinforced by McQueen’s flick-book show and tell of his pornography collection.

Brandon’s fragile existence is interrupted by the arrival of his little sister, who lets herself into his apartment. Initially saying she’ll stay for only a few days, it soon becomes clear this isn’t the plan. The first time we meet Sissy (Carey Mulligan) she too is naked, suggesting it’s a family thing, perhaps partially explaining their strange highly-charged relationship. Sissy is the closest we get to understanding Brandon; Her heart-felt message reassuring him, “We are not bad, we just come from a bad place”, hints to a troubled past.

Despite his unsavoury sexual appetite and almost physical confrontational arguments with Sissy, McQueen manages to make Brandon a sympathetic character. Forced to share a taxi with Sissy and his boss while they make-out, it’s for once easy to empathise with him. Even as he dejectedly does the club circuit, essentially using “[I go down there]” as a desperate chat-up line, we understand the cause of his pain. Flashes of traffic lights in a darkened street reveal he’s been crying and flashbacks remembering a destructive outing suggest remorse. A sex montage is made almost sympathetic through the sadness shown in his eyes. On a bizarre date with a colleague, he tells Marianne (Nicole Beharie) “relationships don’t seem realistic” and it’s impossible not to believe he speaks with conviction. Attempts at forming a bond with Marianne don’t seem to fit but are perhaps representative of his own inability to fit society’s expectations.

McQueen favours stripped down characters, naked like their emotions. Brandon’s own sexual preferences are mirrored by McQueen’s grimy outer world of sleazy bars and dark streets where it’s difficult to decipher genuine emotion. Blinds opening and shutting are a motif running through Shame that contrast with repeated shots of people having sex pressed against the glass of a high-rise building, suggesting the two opposing character types Sissy and Brandon represent.

Fassbender is convincing as Brandon but Mulligan doesn’t quite pull off the club singer act, aptly singing a strained-sounding slowed down version of “New York” almost in its entirety with the city’s impressive twinkling skyline in full view, reflecting her and Brandon’s hedonistic but conflicting night lives.

Shame is a slow-burning scene-setter with a predictable conclusion boasting a slight twist. The contrast of the emotional Sissy and the interiorised Brandon works and remains compelling, despite little happening or being resolved. Both characters are very comfortable in their skin but not inside, suggesting Shame is about the discrepancy between giving off an exterior calm and suffering from an internal turmoil. Something we all surely feel at one time or another?

Rating: 4/5

Review by Leo Owen

Shame is out on DVD now.


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