Fresh from its Award season snub, Shame arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Four years on and a million miles away from his debut feature and arguably the British film of the decade Hunger, Steve McQueen brings us Michael Fassbendner in an equally immersive role as sex addict Brandon. Co-written by Abe Morgan (her of The Hour and The Iron Lady fame) Shame places us firmly in contemporary New York, rich contemporary New York in fact and inside the world of Brandon, one of these businessmen in films who work in shiny tall buildings and celebrate a great pitch by drinking in a low-lit bar in another shiny tall building.
It is clear from the off that all is not well with Brandon, he harbours a quiet contempt for colleagues and strangers alike, shying away from any kind of real human contact in favour of a life alone interrupted only by fleeting moments with an array of women who enter his life to fill his gratification before being abruptly kicked out. This empty but comfortable existence is brought to a halt with the arrival of his equally damaged sister Sissy, played with a wavering American accent by Carey Mulligan. Their relationship is a fraught one with little offering as to why until the end when Sissy tells her brother “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Brandon soon finds himself having to hide his addiction from his new houseguest while still seeking that moment of gratification that can temporarily wipe away his state of ennui.
McQueen doesn’t shy away from showing Brandon in the grip of his addiction with the sex coming often and interweaving through the film echoing the protagonist’s life and, true to the addiction, the reality is far from erotic. There seems to be little joy in the many conquests of Fassbender’s character and far from glamourising the many bedroom scenes, they are shot in the favour mirroring an addicts need of a fix. The glimmer of hope comes in the shape of Marianne, a colleague of Brandon’s who succeeds in taking him out of his (relative) comfort zone on a date which shows the lighter moments of both Brandon and the film itself as the two are frequently interrupted by an over-eager waiter. The success of this date only serves as a reminder of the harsh realities of having such an addiction as Brandon, with feelings attached, is unable to perform for the first time. Forced to satisfy his urges, Brandon seeks fulfilment in a drop-in gay club which, instead of showing homosexuality as the lowest ebb, offers an insight into the grips of an addiction which is neither gay nor straight but simply needs satisfying.
Much of the personal turmoil is non-verbal as the sparingly used dialogue sits comfortably with Brandon’s unease within society. As such there’s a lot riding of the performance of Fassbender who’s already built up a working relationship with McQueen that has drawn comparisons to that of Scorsese and DeNiro and it’s a credit to the Artist-cum-Director that he seems to get the very best out of his Irish lead. His portrayal here is utterly convincing and it’s something of a mystery that it didn’t garner more accolades upon release, if nothing else he already seems keen to rival fellow Celt Ewan McGregor in the full-frontal scenes.
There’s nothing new in visual artists turning their hand to directing, there’s a long list dating back years that features modern culture icons like Dali and Warhol but there’s a style to McQueen’s early film career that sets him apart from many others. His incredibly assured camera work alongside cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has already established a sense of tone with the extended single take used to great effect in his Bobby Sands focussed debut replicated here to show Mulligan’s performance of New York New York in unwavering close-up and an isolated Fassbender jogging the streets of Manhattan.
Much like Hunger, the dark themes in Shame make it far easier to appreciate than truly enjoy and while it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the Maze prison drama it confirms belief that McQueen is as talented and aware a film-maker as he is an artist.