The Review: Willy. Dinkle. Ding-dong. Schlong. Dick. Penis. Silly words, aren’t they? Got that out of our systems for now? Good. When I was at school, and the time came for sex education, our teacher put in the shiny new VHS cassette, pressed play and within five minutes a man and a woman appeared, walking around their house like the fruity naturists they obviously were, with not a stitch of clothing on. To a room full of eleven year olds, this was worthy of plenty of laughing, pointing and discussion, until we were told if we continued, the tape would go off again and wouldn’t come back on. But that urge to giggle at the mere mention of genitalia, never mind seeing them on screen, is still suppressed deep down in a great many of us, and it’s also that need to suppress the nature of discussing or seeing something that pretty much every one of us has that has seen Shame get a lot of attention for mostly the wrong reasons. It’s felt at times as if Shame has been categorised along with the pornography that its lead character is so fond of, yet the comparison feels as sensible as likening Goodfellas to The Three Stooges on the basis of slightly funny looking people with strong accents.
One thing’s absolutely for sure; Steve McQueen isn’t afraid to shy away from the big issues or themes. His first film, Hunger, was a triumph of style marrying grimness to substance with his story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Michael Fassbender took on the lead role both then and here, but the characters couldn’t be more different. Put him in a crowd, and Fassbender’s Brandon might be the coolest looking there, but he’ll be the one at the back, doing whatever he can to avoid drawing attention to himself. Your eyes might be drawn to him if you’re an attractive woman; you can be sure, if that’s the case, that his eyes will already be on you, and will have discreetly looked you up and down, mentally undressing you both physically and emotionally. But Brandon might also be hanging back for fear of commitment; physical contact and emotional gratification are right up his alley, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the thought of emotional connection to a woman, even his own sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), seems to be the furthest thing from his mind.
First things first, then: Shame isn’t really about sex. It’s been loosely described as being about sex addiction, but that might be no more than an attempt to put a 21st century label on the fractured psyche of a man who just can’t say no to himself; but then again, why should he? In our internet led society of instant gratification and ready access to whatever you might desire, is it any wonder that someone channelling their OCD and overactive libido ends up following a path such as Brandon? it’s easy for Brandon to keep his deeper desires and needs to himself, but whenever his life rubs up against normal society, the relative innocents – or sister Cissy, about as far from innocent as Brandon – are what brings Brandon’s peccadilloes into sharper focus. Fassbender is fantastic, possibly in a career best performance in what’s been a busy few years, and retains just enough sympathy to keep your investment in the story, despite his more obvious character flaws. Again the charm and smoothness that’s picked him out as a future Bond in the likes of last year’s X-Men prequel are put to good use, but even Bond might blush at some of what Brandon gets up to, and it’s a neat trick in creating a character that both compels and repulses, often at the same time. Mulligan has a smaller role, but she’s almost up to the same standard, and her brashness and brittleness offer a strong dramatic counterpoint to Fassbender.
But Shame would be nothing without a director willing to take on material like this, and Steve McQueen succeeds in taking Shame up another level from his previous film. Hunger was almost a film in three distinct acts, the second of which was a standout single take scene between Bobby Sands and a priest. Shot from a fixed viewpoint, the conversation gripped despite being two people at a table, but even then, McQueen knew just when to cut to a more conventional shot for heightened effect. Here, his visual style is taken up a notch; from the crisp, functional blandness of Brandon’s apartment to the golden shimmer of New York nightlife, Shame looks gorgeous, and it’s not the occasional shots of genitalia at the edge of frame that will linger in the mind after the film finishes. The long single camera set-ups are put to more frequent use, but none outstays their welcome. The tight close-up on Mulligan’s face during her slow jazz rendition of New York, New York might get the most attention, but another scene were Fassbender has a dinner date is even better, allowing the slow burn of the chemistry between him and his prospective partner to ooze off the screen, every tiny detail captured in the frame.
As outstanding a debut as it was, Hunger still felt as if it would be as comfortable in an art installation as it would in a cinema. Shame feels made with only one possible destination in mind, the tricks less apparent when taken at a distance and the performances raw and resonant. By the end, the vice-like grip that’s slowly been exerted throughout the film takes hold and refuses to let go amid scenes of almost unbearable tension. Through it all, the flesh on display is kept to a few scenes and used to best effect each time it’s seen; you might need to repress those inner-child giggles when the first male member appears, somewhat briefly and briskly, but by halfway through it’s to the credit of all involved that no matter what’s seen on screen, it feels perfectly in service of the narrative. The real shame in all this is that from the US’s NC-17 rating to the judgemental looks from the usher as your ticket is checked, Shame has been judged by its reputation, which might deny the film the level of viewers its quality deserves. (Balls.)
Why see it at the cinema: McQueen and Fassbender are genuine talents; the long sequences demand to be seen in a cinema to allow you to soak in every single detail. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you immerse yourself in Shame.
The Score: 10/10