Shame ★★½

Steve McQueen is one of the most artistically individual high-profile British directors working today, able to undertake commercial projects like 12 Years a Slave and Widows yet refusing to let them slide into blandness. His first two feature films, Hunger and Shame, are more in line with his background as a visual artist thanks to their elliptical narrative styles. In terms of quality, however, I'd put them in the lower bracket of his filmography.

I found Shame particularly difficult to work with. It tells the story of young New Yorker Brandon, a sex addict whose sister Sissy arrives to stay with him. The film never seems interested in exploring Brandon's condition, merely laying it down as a fact and somehow expecting the audience to deduce its precise significance, but we're never given enough information elsewhere in the film to be able to do this, because Brandon's personality lacks consistency. Sissy, meanwhile, is drawn as a bundle of entirely arbitrary quirks, but her personality doesn't chime with her course of action late in the film. In a more engrossing film the characters would be presented not only coherently but sympathetically, the basic assumption being that an audience might actually want to take an interest in them beyond being spectators looking at their problems from outside a glass case.

It's unfortunate that McQueen and co-screenwriter Abi Morgan show no genuine interest in their characters, because the other aspects of the film are pretty solid. McQueen has a brilliant eye, and several compositions are unforgettable. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are compelling in the lead roles (despite having to fight an uphill struggle thanks to the script), and Harry Escott's score, while probably murder if listened to on its own, is undeniably well-suited to the tone. All this makes it even more infuriating that Shame is not so much tongue-tied as proudly vacuous.

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