Director Steve Mc Queen’s second film –the first was Hunger the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands tragic and harrowing tale- and like its predecessor is raised to a higher level by a tightly controlled, coiled and passionate performance by its star Michael Fassbender. Portraying the ravaged and debauched lifestyle of the film’s protagonist the successful and attractive thirty something Brandon Sullivan, who also has an addiction to frequent explicit and anonymous sexual encounters, Fassbender turns in an amazing performance which dominates the screen whilst requiring a lot of full frontal nudity proving that he indeed does have a very large part in the films success. The film itself although beautifully shot capturing both the gloss and depravity of Brandon’s lifestyle is unsettling and McQueen’s directorial skills are brave in that he concentrates on a long take when less confident directors would have yelled ‘cut’. Instead he allows his camera to elongate its unflinching gaze allowing not only the actors expressions to articulate the machinations of their minds but also allowing the audience to absorb and involve themselves in the uneasy tension of the drama. It is an unsettling experience which whilst not obviously enjoyable certainly resonates on so many levels with not only the ravages of addiction brought to the fore but the sheer monotony and time consumed featuring to highlight what a numbing experience it becomes.
Whilst he is never obviously happy- Fassbender articulates with a detached look in his eyes which barely conceal his inner pain and internal turmoil- Brandon’s life is thrown even further into disarray with the arrival of his obviously emotionally disturbed younger sister Sissy in an equally strong performance by Carey Mulligan. Launching herself into Brandon’s stratosphere like a whirlwind she moves into his apartment then sleeps with his boss at a rate which even makes her brother wince and register discomfort. She gives a slow languorous and emotionally heartfelt rendition of New York, New York which has none of the joie de vivre and upbeat enthusiasm usually associated with that song instead tingeing it with a deep rooted melancholy. McQueen shoots this scene in one take focussing intently on Mulligan’s features which seem to contort with grief whilst simultaneously revealing her fractured inner psyche. It is a scene which reduces Brandon to tears though we are never sure why.
Further problems arise when Brandon attempts some normality in his relationships by going out on a date with Marianne a beautiful girl from his office. The awkwardness of the date combined with Brandon’s inability to express emotion or even have sexual relations with someone he is emotionally attracted to ensure that the relationship is essentially a non starter. Following this he embarks on even darker episodes in the inferno of the demi-monde and as his life appears to unravel more and more he simply confronts these issues by becoming even more debauched. There does not seem to be any resolution for either Brandon or Sissy and the root of their unhappiness is never revealed as is the fact whether they are ever likely to find any resolve to their obvious problems.
Shame is a deeply unsettling film that is no walk in the park followed by a skip around the flowers and its intensity is at times claustrophobic but it never fails to be compelling. This is due to extremely strong performances by Fassbender and Mulligan which McQueen’s brave and inventive direction only further highlights to great advantage. It is a film which will stay with you long after the unresolved ending and its impact will resonate even if you are not sure how or even why.