It is a powerful and provocative film, raw and explicit in its handling of the mental fragility and the emotional flux of addiction fuelled by an astonishing performance from Michael Fassbender and told by a director with confidence and a careful hand. Shame will find its way under your skin and give your bones a good shake; it will be on your mind for days afterwards.
It shares something with Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, not least in its bleak, inexorable starkness but the self loathing found in David Thewlis’s Johnny has an echo in the internal storm of desire and shame which stirs in Fassbender’s Brandon. Where the two are different is the transient nature of Johnny’s hatred gives him an outlet to vent his anger, Brandon’s world is carefully built to project a healthy outward appearance and therefore his battle is fought without an external escape until his sister arrives to stay at his flat and cracks begin to appear and the pressure begins to build.
McQueen’s innate understanding of how to present a scene is compounded with a desire to play with the framing and the position of the characters. Few directors would think, let alone film, a crucial scene with the central character’s face turned away from the audience but McQueen knows his story and his audience and has trust and faith in both. The silent subway journeys are another example of the director capturing his character in the grip of his sickness and showing the effect he has on those around him.
There is a beautiful synergy between McQueen and Fassbender, present early on when Brandon has a prostitute strip for him, he tells her to go slowly and she complies, all the time lying on the bed watching her. The shot is carefully held and only at the very last moment of her undressing does Brandon reach for her and as soon as they touch the shot is over. It’s a simple and breathtaking display of actor and director working perfectly together, conveying much in a single movement.
It is the oddest of Odd Couple films, with Mulligan’s spacey Sissy trailing a whirlwind of emotional unrest into her brother’s perfectly formed world. It is her unwanted intrusion which holds a mirror up to his life with her nakedness, both literally (presenting Brandon with an untouchable female) and emotionally. Fassbender and Mulligan work very well together, each breaking the other down over time; his tears at her soulful rendition of New York, New York in a Manhattan bar and her anger at his lack of protective care of her and his selfish nature are moments which propel the narrative forward and are beautifully played.
Despite its bleak and unrelenting tone the film never loses its ability to surprise, and there are some very funny moments (witness the most terrifyingly awkward and passive aggressive waiter in the world) and an astonishing sequence which begins with a broken and bloodied Brandon travelling the subway home intercut with an expertly crafted series of flashbacks telling the sorry story of a night out which descends into the desolate chaos.
Some people may find it a difficult film to watch, I found it mesmerising and I doubt I’ll see many more intelligent and well directed films this year. Mention must be made of Abi Morgan’s hand in the script which is truthful and perceptive, with a sense of danger evident in every scene. In Fassbender McQueen has found an actor whose willingness to tear himself up on screen and command an audience perfectly matches the director’s exploration of the human soul.
In an exceptional year for British cinema Shame leads the way and underlines McQueen’s position as one of cinema’s most powerful and promising directors.