As a film that had already been nominated for several awards and received rave reviews from hardened critics, Steve McQueen’s Shame stood out as one of the first must-see movies of 2012.
The breakthrough leading role for Michael Fassbender (who also starred as Irish republican Bobby Sands for McQueen’s first project Hunger in 2008) is that of Brandon Sullivan; a thirty-something businessman living in New York with an impulsive sexual appetite. The fact that Fassbender was nominated for Best Actor at the 2012 Golden Globes (competing against himself for his role as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Mind), speaks volumes of his ability and the dedication he gives to the role.
Luckily for film fans independent cinemas across the UK held their preview screenings of Shame followed by a live Q&A with former Turner prize nominated artist McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan to give us an insight into Brandon’s twisted world…
The subject matter, of course, has been the film’s main point of interest for most, but this is by no means a simple movie about any single issue. The real story begins when Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by British BAFTA winning waif Carey Mulligan, arrives at his apartment to stay.
The opening scene of the film sees Brandon intensely eyeing a young woman on the subway, glancing at the wedding ring on her finger. We soon learn that Brandon has very few boundaries when it comes to sex. From frequenting bars to pick up women and gazing at a sordid collection of pornography to hiring prostitutes and masturbating in the office bathrooms, Brandon manages to mask his obsession with a quiet, reticent and sometimes steely exterior of handsomeness and polite charm.
Basically the man will try to bone anything, at any time. In fact you’re left wondering that maybe the Swiss cheese is going to get some action as he reaches into his refrigerator. Yet, in spite of the numerous sex scenes, they remain unerotic and awkwardly realistic when Brandon finds that he can not perform when faced with the one woman he has any connection with. Although McQueen and Morgan never explicitly state how Brandon’s character reached this point, all we know is that his behaviour veils a deeply troubled past which is stirred by the arrival of Sissy.
Sissy, by contrast, is very much the ‘little girl lost’, played excellently by Carey Mulligan. Her ill-fitting trashy clothes, bleary make-up and dyed-out hair clash furiously with the slick and polished Brandon and his minimalist apartment. Her presence however, is not welcomed and it would seem that Brandon has distanced himself from her for many years.
It is also clear from this point that there is something very odd about their relationship, in particular the critically noted close-up scene of Sissy performing a slow rendition of New York, New York at the Standard Hotel – which causes Brandon to shed a tear. As Sissy tries to get closer to her brother, he pushes her further and further away. One disconcerting scene sees a giggling Sissy catching him masturbating and, in embarrassment and anger, he aggressively leaps on her in just a towel. A lot of nervous murmurs from the audience signal that this is definitely not normal sibling behaviour. ‘Many people assume there is a sexual relationship between Brandon and Sissy yet, although I don’t think it is sexual, I think it is very sexualised,’ said McQueen of the assumption. ‘We may never know exactly what happened to them,’ he adds, although many critics have suggested that a history of sexual abuse during their childhood is hinted at. ‘When we were researching for the film and interviewing people suffering from sex addiction we didn’t know anything about their backgrounds either. In a way I didn’t need to,’ said McQueen.
The danger of his addiction being exposed causes tension for many of the scenes between Mulligan and Fassbender but there is also an uneasy sense that he has a fear of restraint in her presence. ‘It’s like the one woman he can’t screw,’ said Morgan. ‘It’s more about control and boundaries. Brandon no longer has boundaries.’ Though there is very little dialogue, the few moments of light comedy, the cinematography and carefully cut scenes speak for themselves. One particularly impressive moment is the continuous shot where Brandon jogs through the streets of New York at night to avoid hearing his sister having sex with his boss in his own bedroom.
As for all of that gratuitous nudity, the sex scenes are not as explicit as one might expect, although one particular appendage gets a lot of screen time. Whereas one might have expected titillating Don Draper liaisons or frenzied American Psycho-style orgies, Fassbender surprisingly injects a lot of humanity into Brandon. His behaviour becomes so normal to him that we, too, can believe that this is the world as he sees it. It also feels as if, during Brandon’s lowest ebb, that his character’s perversions could be pushed further to portray just how damaging his behaviour is to others and himself. In spite of this, Fassbender does an excellent job of creating a character who is equally loathsome as he is pitiful and unusually compelling.
As for Mulligan, she gives us an insight into both characters without having to do much at all. Sissy’s minimal screen time is compensated by her child-like neuroticism, erratic lifestyle and dependency on Brandon for affection. ‘It’s like one character is imploding and the other is exploding,’ said Morgan. ‘They choose to deal with their problems in very different ways.’
The finale leaves us with a subtle climax in which we never really learn how it all ends, whilst the event that precedes it does not seem to fit the tone. McQueen and Morgan stated that even they never knew what happened to their characters because one never knows where addiction may lead.
Without a doubt, Mulligan and Fassbender deserve all the hype, yet something seems to be missing from the story. For what it’s worth a sense of closure would put the audience’s mind to rest.
Overall, Shame is one of the more interesting pieces of cinema to come out of the UK in a long time. It is beautifully shot and the subtlety of McQueen’s characterization allows us to see reality as it is. In this case, it is an insight into the world of two people who are extremely damaged and are dealing with pain from opposite ends of a behavioural spectrum. However, this film could have been much, much more had McQueen braved to delve a little deeper.
Best scene: Brandon’s jog through the streets of New York.
Most awkward scene to watch with your parents: The threesome.