Review: Shame

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by:Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Released: February 9, 2012
Grade: A

Shame opens with a beautiful scene.  A man is travelling on a New York City subway train and his eyes are glued to a young blonde woman sitting diagonally opposite.  Initially flattered by the attention, the woman quickly starts to feel uncomfortable.  He hasn’t said a word but his confident, unflinching stare has made his intentions very clear.  She not-so-subtly flashes her wedding ring and then makes a hasty exit from the train.

The man’s name is Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) and he is one of the most interesting characters that we have seen on screen over the past year.  He lives alone in a clean, trendy apartment with a great view.  He has a nicely-paying job that comes with a sleek office.  He dresses immaculately and looks like a man who is cool, calm and collected.

To use a popular idiom - appearances can be deceiving.  He may have everyone else fooled but deep down, Brandon Sullivan knows he is not in control.  He is a sex addict.  It’s what he thinks about all day long.  He regularly hires prostitutes, he downloads huge amounts of porn and he even masturbates in the toilet cubicles at work.

When I saw this film at the Toronto Film Festival last September, writer-director Steve McQueen (Hunger) and star Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) touched on the subject matter in the post film Q&A session.  There are so many “addictions” that are widely acknowledged such as alcohol, drugs and gambling.  The symptoms are easy to spot and various services are available to help people deal with their problems.

That’s not the case with sex addiction.  It’s largely kept from public view and it’s a key reason why McQueen wanted to make the film.  He’s not trying to score political points or offer any easy solutions.  He just wants to put the issue “out there” and get people talking.  I saw this film for a second time last week and had a few lengthy conversations with friends in the cinema foyer afterwards.  Any movie that can generate such discussion has my admiration.

The exploration of sex addiction is only part of the story however.  Equally riveting is the psychological analysis of its leading character.  Every scene of the film is spent focused on Brandon and over the course of two hours, we try to break through his façade and understand what drives his behaviour.

At the heart of Brandon’s troubles is a deep-seated fear of intimacy.  He’s a 30-something year old guy but he’s never had a relationship that has lasted more than 4 months.  It’s a fact he freely confesses while on a date with a colleague from work (a great segment in the film).

The only person who can get past Brandon’s steely exterior is his younger sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who is staying with him for a few days while visiting New York City.  These two characters share a dark history that isn’t specifically detailed.  It’s as if McQueen wants us to draw our own conclusions.  Her presence in his apartment and her constant probing into his lifestyle is of great discomfort to Brandon.  He tries to push Sissy away but she won’t budge.

Without a doubt, Shame is one of the best films of the year.  The story is fascinating in itself but it’s Steve McQueen’s careful direction that gives it a seductive, hypnotic edge.  He wants us to know what it’s like to be Brandon Sullivan and there’s very little respite.  The lack of editing, curious camera angles and odd choice of music will leave many feeling uncomfortable.

The terrific performances must also be acknowledged.  The tortured look in Michael Fassbender’s eyes says more than any dialogue could.  Carey Mulligan (An Education) floors the audience with a heartfelt rendition of Liza Minnelli’s New York New York in a hotel bar.  It’s disappointing that both were overlooked in the recent Academy Award nominations.

As amazing as this movie is, I don’t think you can ever say that you “enjoyed” it.  Rather, it’s an intense film-going experience that will leave a lasting impression.

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The Shame Q&A at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival with director Steve McQueen & star Michael Fassbender.

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The huge crowd at the Princess Of Wales Theatre at TIFF for the North American premiere of Shame.