WRITTEN BY: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
DIRECTED BY: Steve McQueen
STARRING: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
RATING: 3.5 stars
On the surface, it appears that Shame is a film about sex addiction. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that Shame is far more complex and is an examination of a man's unique relationship with his sister and how their childhood shaped them to become the adults they are. Layered with sadness, trauma, affection and desire, Shame is a powerful and heartbreaking look at the human psyche and what it can withstand.
Shame is set in New York and tells the story of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a man who puts on the facade of having a normal life but secretly indulges in his sexual desires. Brandon is a sex addict but he keeps it hidden from the world. Brandon doesn't have sex with prostitutes and strangers because he wants to, but rather, because he actually needs to have sex and masturbate more than normal. His lifestyle is interrupted when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced to stay with him indefinitely. Her arrival is a catalyst for Brandon's life to spiral out of control as he is forced to confront himself and the choices he has made.
Before Sissy came to live with him, Brandon's life was carefully measured with only a few cracks beginning to appear, such as a computer virus on his work computer as a result of excessive porn downloads. But otherwise, his life followed a steady rhythm. Sissy is the complete opposite of her brother. Brandon is a businessman who blends into the crowd in his suit and tie, while Sissy is a nightclub singer who wears bright colours and vintage designs. Brandon lacks emotion, while Sissy is an emotional mess, falling in love easily and cutting herself when the emotion becomes too great. The film only hints at their back story, but we sense they must have shared a difficult childhood. Perhaps they were abused as children? Certainly there was something traumatic in their past that has made them self-destructive as they are – Brandon being a desperate sex addict and Sissy being a young woman with suicidal tendencies.
A film like Shame relies heavily on the performances of its leads. Fassbender is brilliant as Brandon. I'm disappointed he missed out on an Academy Award nomination because he really does bare his soul as well as his body in this film. There has been a lot of talk about his frontal nude scene, but in a film like Shame, it is actually quite fitting. In fact, he has a lot of sex scenes in this film that are quite moving to watch because we see Brandon's desperation and addiction on Fassbender's face. It is not just sex for the sake of it. Muilligan is also impressive as Sissy. Her character is vulnerable and full of secrets. Mulligan portrays this beautifully.
Shame has been well written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen, who also directed the film. The script has left the story open enough that various interpretations can be made. Unfortunately, I felt that the ending was a little too vague and open-ended. I would have liked to see a stronger conclusion because we don't really know what the future holds for Brandon. Nonetheless, the film makes for some insightful viewing. Shame is not for the faint-hearted, because there is a lot of nudity and sex, but it is also there to drive the story forward. Worth a look.