Sex-fuelled Shame may be, but sexy it is not. Charting the plight of addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender), it revokes the stigma that was that instantaneously prompts humour and is synonymous with Michael Douglas. But in depicting one of human beings’ greatest pleasures, it illustrates the emptiness confidence and forwardness can induce.
Brandon’s life is carefully regimented: work, w**k, s**g, sleep. He is an attractive introvert whose magnetism radiates in whatever environment. In one of the film’s opening scenes, he exchanges glances with a pretty commuter on the train. What begins as a mutual attraction soon spirals as he fixes his glance on the initially flirtatious blonde, who soon becomes uncomfortable under the watchful eye of a sexual predator.
The arrival of his self-harming sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) however disrupts his lifestyle, and soon he has the burden of his sole immediate relative to contend with, haunted by a past event. Mulligan, who has avoided the glamorous route since her 2009 breakthrough An Education, is a fractious foil for her on-screen sibling as the washed-up and starry-eyed Sissy, but both are helpless to aid one another.
And it is that reticence which prevents Steve McQueen’s second debut film from achieving greatness. The dynamic between Brandon and Sissy is as compelling as it is confounding. There are incestuous hints as they confront one another naked as if it were second nature, complemented by a tenderness that is borderline Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s all guesswork.
Guarded, Brandon daren’t divulge his torment to any of his conquests or confidants. He feigns ignorance when his adulterous boss (James Badge Dale) informs him that his work computer was removed due to the sheer volume of pornography that corrupted the hard drive. It flirts with the possibility of resembling an AA meeting however the question ‘why?’ is never answered.
Fassbender, arguably the greatest actor in the world at the moment, gives a fantastic and fearless performance. He is charming, repulsive and scary yet his dialogue-free moments wallowing in his own self-pity are so poignant that he effortlessly draws sympathy.
When Brandon is engaged in an orgy and on the cusp of climax, he suddenly looks, via a combination of lighting and expressive acting, skeletal. It is the denouement to a degenerative and desperate night, and he finally reaches depravity in what may or may not be the addict’s moment of clarity.
McQueen’s long takes don’t daunt his actors. Fassbender, Mulligan and Badge Dale revel in the extended license for expression, and the film is more believable for it. Sean Bobbitt, his cinematographer on the testing Hunger, returns to capture the seedy and the swanky New York locales.
Harry Escott’s suite which accompanies Brandon is a sensationally cinematic 12 minutes of music that proves that the violin is an instrument unparalleled in tugging on the heart strings. Although a tracking shot following Fassbender’s protagonist jogging through the sleepy streets of the Big Apple is hamstrung to the sound of an incongruous classical melody.