Reviews - Shame
Reviewed By John Stakes
The level of advance publicity for Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed 2011 mainstream film (receiving the first of two showings in Keswick at last Sunday’s film club) at least ensured that its audience could never be described as unsuspecting, but nothing could have prepared them for the film’s depiction of unremittingly cold, sexual craving clinically delivered and stripped of all eroticism and joy.
With all the searing hard hitting directness he brought to his Bobby Sands Maze prison award winning “Hunger”, McQueen once again challenges our own preconceptions and social conditioning in his depiction of another self-driven and arguably no less an imprisoned individual. Both could be described as victims but here Michael Fassbender’s Brandon was so trapped within his addiction that he was unable to control his animal instincts, and, unlike Sands, had no exit route to deliverance.
Brandon superficially presented as a handsomely groomed, well heeled and endowed thirty something year old executive living in New York with no ties. He merely had to target his predatory eyes to “score” and any residual yearning was satiated by the oldest profession and e section of the gay community. All the women on show were sexually alluring and instantly or quickly submissive. His limited conversational acumen was no impediment. One could be forgiven for thinking any film intending to portray him as an object of pity had a mountain to climb. Even McQueen’s reputation for brutal honesty and Fassbender’s known willingness to immerse himself in his acting persona might not be enough to suspend cynicism. But, within minutes of the opening, it is evident that Brandon is a deeply disturbed tortured individual and the unexpected arrival of his sister is to blow his manicured and closeted life apart.
To demonstrate the emotional vacuity of Brandon’s sexually obsessive compulsive disorder McQueen, through the prism of sexual explicitness, leaves his audience in no doubt that Brandon’s many fleeting sexual conquests never satisfy or abate his cravings. This man’s “hunger” is never assuaged and he is incapable of forming relationships of any significance. Even his admission that his longest attachment was no more than four months was questionable. Brandon’s life seems destined to remain blighted and inhibited by his emotional sterility.
Background information as to Brandon’s past and why he is afflicted in this way is scant but it is clear that he and his self harming sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) have endured troubled childhoods and both have remained damaged goods well into adulthood. Brandon’s self-obsessive and contained lifestyle and failure to relate even at sibling level, contributes to his sister’s later suicide attempt. This at least stops him in his tracks and may just give him a reason to turn his life around.
McQueen’s intricate camerawork expertly demonstrated the aridity and sterility of sexual intercourse when relief and self gratification are the only driving forces and the act is stripped of any tenderness and affection. These scenes, complemented by a telling musical score, were depicted with a graphic fluidity and mature honesty.
The original screenplay was penned by McQueen himself and Abi Morgan whose recent writing credits include BBC2’s “The Hour”, “Birdsong” and “The Iron Lady”. However the dialogue is deliberately spare both to underline Brandon’s lack of social skills and to utilise Fassbender’s skill at revealing Brandon’s inner torment through facial expression and body language.
Fassbender’s study of sexual self obsession was a difficult watch. In revealing Brandon’s outward compulsive drive and internal misery and self loathing he was no less compelling than he had been showing Bobby Sands’ inner strength and conviction. Fassbender is one of the few actors around who inhabit their roles to “become” the people they characterise. Through this rigorously methodical and intensely focused style he is able to go beyond merely persuading us to believe Brandon is real, and also show how straight-jacketed he is by his condition. Against the odds he succeeded brilliantly at eliciting sympathy. Failure to convince at this level would have rendered the film laughable which explains why, had Fassbender not been available, McQueen would never have attempted to film.
Fassbinder has already won the award for best actor at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, New York Critics Circle Awards, and the British Independent Film Awards for his portrayal of Brandon. Richly deserved. Carey Mulligan was also impressive bringing a much needed humanity and mirror into Brandon’s life which he found impossible to cope with. His surrogate mother city New York proved to be no more than a breeding ground for serving up the fodder to satiate his libidinous appetites. One of the starkest, austere, aridly humourless, and bleakly lugubrious films of recent years but brilliantly executed.
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