The quest for success at the Oscars can take Hollywood’s finest to some pretty dark places. These days it seems playing a homosexual, a drunk or someone with a life threatening speech impediment is a prerequisite in the pursuit of the best actor/actress gong. This year to be in with a shout it seems you have to either play a despicable cunt of a woman (see Meryl Streep) or pretend you’re not still outrageously handsome in your old age (see George Clooney). In Michael Fassbender’s case the performance which will get him at least nominated at this year’s awards sees him play Brandon Sullivan, a high flying New York banker with a crippling sex addiction in Steve McQueen’s Shame.
Opening with a montage covering Brandon’s daily routine, Shame disregards the classic Hollywood structure of intro, main body, conclusion in favour of the (now conventional) indie method of dropping the viewer into the middle of a character’s life and allowing the story to unfold from what we find there. Set to Harry Escott’s powerful and emotive soundtrack we see Brandon get up, ride the subway, go to work, have his dinner, go for drinks then get an early night in order to be fresh for work the next day. Pretty standard stuff really. Oh yeah, he also knocks one out about 6 times a day, has sex with strangers he meets on the tube, pays for high end prostitutes and generally bones his way through the best part of Manhattan. When his troubled, bi-polar sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up unannounced at his apartment needing somewhere to live, Brandon’s carefully protected private life begins to unravel. As familiarity breeds contempt between the siblings, their deep rooted emotional problems become increasingly apparent.
When it comes to handling sensitive, controversial subject matter Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen have previous together, Fassbender having made his name in McQueen’s 2008 Bobby Sands biopic Hunger. Here again the director knows how to get the best from his star, favouring long takes in order to display Fassbender’s ability to stay focused and in character for extended periods of time. These long and often very slow takes set the tone for the majority of the film, allowing scenes to unfold at a leisurely pace which never becomes tedious due to McQueen’s ability to subtly capture the beauty of very simple imagery, and to move the camera in a way which is at times both natural and very cinematic. McQueen also gets the best out of one of cinemas greatest ever characters; New York City. Representations of the city in the film are endless but if used correctly the results can still be quite stunning, and McQueen’s use of views from buildings, reflections in glass and long uninterrupted shots at street level displays this perfectly.
For all its visual splendour, the success or failure of such a character driven piece as Shame is always going to come down to the performances of the central characters. Fortunate for Steve McQueen, then, that in Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender he has two of the finest young stars of their generation. In the supporting role of Sissy, Mulligan is perfectly cast, communicating her eccentricity, her vulnerability and her essential need to be loved and protected, something which her brother seems incapable of providing. Fassbender, who is rarely anything but excellent, provides one of his finest performances to date, playing Brandon as a character so carefully manufactured that he cannot open up to anyone on an emotional level, forcing him to keep his sister at arm’s length and to abandon his potential relationship with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) when it seems it could be about more than simply sex. Such readings of the character can only be inferred and it is a bit of a drawback that a more detailed analysis of Brandon, Sissy or their relationship with each other is never attempted. Did they have a messed up childhood? Are the genetically predisposed to having mental problems? We never find out.
McQueen’s MO seems more to do with taking his audience out of its comfort zone and confronting us with an issue that is often discussed but never really penetrated at a deeper level…(couldn’t resist)…where does the line come between a sex life and a sex addiction? Brandon’s problems are evident from the beginning, but for the first half of the film it’s hard to feel all that sorry for him. He has meaningless sex with an endless succession of gorgeous strangers then gets up and goes to his high paying job and sits on porn all day, cry me a fucking river. But the longer the film goes on the more we see his addiction affect his ability to do his job, his ability to connect with the world, his ability to stop thinking about sex for long enough to enjoy the other things in life. In this sense McQueen’s slow moving approach works well for two reasons, allowing us to gradually come to an understanding about how serious Brandon’s problem is, and confronting us with uncomfortably long sex scenes in order to establish the issue at the very root of the film. Sex should be private and intimate, yet Brandon’s inability to seek sex based on emotional attachment means his quest for fulfilment will never end, he will just keep going, looking for more.
Whether Shame is an enjoyable movie to watch is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It is very well made, well-paced performed to the highest standard. Yet the subject matter is so difficult to watch at times that it’s hard to promote it as a bit of Friday night entertainment. Gun to my head I would recommend it – it’s rare to see such a strong character piece without the slightest hint of melodrama at this Oscar hungry time of year – just don’t go and see it with your parents. As for Michael Fassbender; his search for gratification at the Oscars may have to continue for another year, Shame being a touch too graphic for the academy’s taste, but if he continues to put in performances as impressive as this, the awards won’t be long in…coming.