Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a highly successful businessman living in New York, is unable to manage his uncontrollable sex life. When his wayward sibling, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), abruptly invades his personal space, Brandon’s carefully constructed world slowly spirals out of control.
Unflinching and relentless, Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan tackle the controversial subject matter head-on, invading every aspect of Brandon’s seedy life through meditative moments – such as a hypnotising rendition of New York, New York from Sissy, which will forever be referenced – and increasingly brazen sexual encounters, rather than unnecessary plot devices and diverting side-stories. Instead of weighing down the narrative by spending time exploring the past that resulted in Brandon and – to an almost equal extent – Sissy’s reckless personalities, we are instead plunged headfirst into the mindsets already forged by these characters, resulting in a perpetual character study that realistically and unnervingly demonstrates their helplessness.
Through Sean Bobbitt’s observing cinematography and McQueen’s keen eye for contemplative direction, Brandon is presented as a man unable to break free of his metaphorical shackles and forge meaningful relationships – something that is highlighted perfectly in two scenarios: his unrelenting desire to always keep Sissy at arms length; and his dehumanisation of sex, which stops him from creating any real emotional attachment.
The aesthetic executed by Bobbitt, along with the immaculacy of both Brandon’s appearance and his apartment, the use of wide open spaces and McQueen’s floating, forever external camera shots, assist in fabricating a lonely, isolated atmosphere that lures the audience into Brandon’s story. From this grounding they adduce the sleazy, illicit purgatory he is forced to inhabit through frank nudity and surly acts of sex. It’s necessary in allowing the audience to fully understand the devastating effects addiction can have on its powerless victims. Moreover, the film refreshingly abandons any Hollywood trappings of unlikely happy endings and conclusive resolution for its troubled characters.
With the persistent focus placed upon him, Fassbender rises to the challenge to deliver a forceful, tormented and fractured performance as Brandon. Fassbender is able to convey a range of emotions through Brandon’s facial expressions that say more than words ever could. In the same degree, Mulligan delivers the best performance of her career as Sissy, the antithesis to Fassbender’s Brandon. While Sissy is needy, reckless and attention-seeking, Brandon prefers seclusion, desperately keeping his private life as enclosed as is physically possible. They bounce off one another extraordinarily: each partially responsible for the others continued emotional torture. Nicole Beharie, Hannah Ware and James Badge Dale provide notable support, but fittingly remain in the background, only there to tip-off our central duo.
In Shame, McQueen has built upon his acclaimed and remarkable debut, Hunger, to craft a frank, meditative and devastating portrait of addiction, bolstered by exquisite, thought-provoking performances from Fassbender and Mulligan and a permeating score by Harry Escott that perfectly captures the mood, tone and setting of the proceedings.