Shame ★★★★

“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”

Anyone who’s seen 12 Years a Slave will most likely be aware of Steve McQueen’s ability to simultaneously create compelling cinema and tackle difficult subject matter with unflinching honesty. This, his second feature film and a dark drama about sex addiction and broken families, also marks his second collaboration with Michael Fassbender, with whom he previously worked in the brilliant but brutal Hunger. Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, an Irish-American living in New York. He has a nice apartment and a good job, but seems oddly detached from his colleagues and family – his closest friend is his boss. Brandon finds comfort in internet porn, masturbation, prostitutes and one-night stands, and this life, though ultimately destructive, seems to work for him. It’s only when his equally troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives uninvited to stay with him that the cracks in his cold, emotionless existence really start to show.

There are moments in Shame that are frankly some of the most breathtaking sequences of cinema of recent years. The film is framed by two extraordinary but simple sequences in which Brandon sits on the subway alongside other commuters all dressed in grey, monochrome colours. Opposite Brandon is a young woman with blonde hair, who is notable by the fact she is dressed in colours far brighter than anyone else. They glance at each other, communicating only with their eyes and their body language, and yet they manage to convey more than most actors do with huge chunks of dialogue.

Fassbender was unlucky to miss out on an Oscar nomination for this, because he certainly deserved it. Even when he says nothing, we know exactly what Brandon is thinking. Even when he’s gurning away whilst grinding against some anonymous prostitute or tugging away violently into his bathroom sink, we never get the sense he’s particularly enjoying it. It’s just what he needs to keep on going, the same way a drug addict will return time and time again to the substance they know is killing them. Mulligan is also fantastic, bringing a frightening fragility to her role. Though she doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Fassbender, we believe that they have shared a troubled past, which neither of them particularly want to embrace. They both need each other and they both know it, but only Sissy dares to try and reach out. Brandon is terrified of any emotional connection, scared by what he may be left with if it breaks down. Both of them are lost; neither of them know entirely what to do.

It’s a shame (pun unintended) that the film seems to rely so heavily on its central performance. As it progresses, the ‘plot’ becomes gradually flimsier, but Fassbender holds it all together. Many people have taken against the scene in which Brandon visits a gay bar, and indeed this is a misstep. But otherwise it’s a very impressive piece of work from an extraordinary filmmaker, with chilly cinematography from Sean Bobbitt, a brooding score by Harry Escott, and towering performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

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