Shame has been on release in the States since 2 December, and gathering momentum for its arrival home. Home because, while it is set in New York, it has significant UK (okay, and Irish/German) roots. Not only was it part produced by the UK Film Council and Film4, it is directed by UK director Steve McQueen (moving prison hunger strike drama Hunger, 2008), written by Abi Morgan (UK TV writer who also wrote Iron Lady, the forthcoming Birdsong and The Hour) and stars UK/Ireland performers-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
On its way Shame has picked up a reputation for being extremely racy – and it is – however Shame is racy just as similarly toned Drive is violent. Yes it has moments and it doesn’t exactly shy away in those moments – but sex isn’t the core element of the film.
Instead it is the byproduct of its bold deconstruction of a sex addicted man.
Shame is unquestioningly about Brendan, played by Michael Fassbender – a 30 something man of wealth and seemingly healthy six figure employment, who lives in a white-walled one bedroom apartment somewhere in central Manhattan.
And whose life is ruled by a constant stream of sex, porn and the next meaningless, gutteral orgasm.
Calm and confident in attracting women, in contrast to his (initially) amusingly fumbling boss, Brendan will pick up strangers just as much as he will pay for sex, and is addicted in the sense that he will surf pornography at work and eat dinner, expressionless, to a laptop streaming hardcore activity.
The only light in his world is one he seems adamant to shut out – his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She sings in upmarket clubs, but is significantly less together than Brendan and apparently in the middle of a turbulent relationship. Their relationship is tender and close, but also distant. For instance Brendan will ignore her repeated calls and pleas for help, yet his eyes will water – just a little – when he listens to her sing.
Both characters are wonderfully complex and humanly flawed – Mulligan was so taken with the character of Sissy she begged McQueen for the role, then secretly went off to learn how to sing – and it is their sibling back-and-forth that kickstarts the shake up of Brendan’s hermetically sex-sealed world. For when Sissy needs a place to stay and crashes at Brendan’s one-bedroom flat, Brendan’s routine is disturbed just enough to put him off his stroke – as it were – and her presence puts up a mirror to his own unstable existence.
Shame essentially follows the results of this destabilisation. Brendan’s appetites at work and leisure come under close examination as we witness the affect of his addiction on his relationships. With his sister. With his colleagues. With sex and latterly himself as he tries to retake control.
Just like Drive, a key element of Shame is this style. Shame doesn’t have the … reverb … of the Ryan Gosling film, but McQueen reels off long one-shot after long one-shot scenes, letting the actors inhabit their roles and play off each other. This is fascinating to watch, and gives Shame a calm-in-the-urban-chaos feel, even in the sex sequences (there is much nudity, but the made less gratuitous by the context). Standout examples of McQueen’s drawn-out humanism include a meticulous restaurant scene on a date with a co-worker and Sissy’s moving singing.
Occasionally funny, Shame is mostly an intense character drama. Like many January offerings it is more arthouse than mainstream, so those looking for edge-of-seat tension should apply elsewhere. Shame also isn’t the most fluid, surprising or typically gripping story, however it doesn’t try to be. Instead it is controversial, close – really exceptionally human and close – constantly true to its style, and contains intensely intimate performances from possibly the two most alluring actors currently working.
The end result is an atmospheric examination of a man immersed in sex and how he lives his life – and perhaps a metaphorical deconstruction of current times – and a film that will be the subject of coffee break chatter in the mornings, for its effect as much as its nudity.