After an exceptional debut with 2008’s Hunger, a searing drama charting the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, director Steve McQueen and Hunger star Michael Fassbender reunite with another intense character study that tops their previous effort.
The film is extremely raw and sexually frank right from the off, opening with Fassbender’s Brandon awakening in his New York apartment and beginning his daily routine, McQueen’s camera following the naked Brandon around his home, not stopping to flinch as he urinates and, eventually, masturbates. This scene alone would be enough to turn many audiences away but is a stark slice of reality that sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the film, which is above all things, a dark, unflinching look at the life of a sex addict.
Outwardly, Brandon appears to be an ordinary New York professional, riding the subway to his anonymous office job where he seems to be fairly successful. This is a character who could, essentially, be any one of us but like a drug addict or alcoholic, he has an insatiable need for sex which bubbles under the surface in every scene. Early in the film, Brandon is seen riding the subway home. He spots an attractive young woman and his eyes lock on her. She notices what initially seems like innocent flirting but as Brandon maintains his cold gaze, the woman becomes uncomfortable and leaves. This scene, and a later one in a bar with work colleagues, establishes that Brandon basically sees women, and potentially men, as nothing more than a means to achieve sexual gratification.
These scenes and the character in general, are superbly played by Michael Fassbender in a brave performance that stands out as one of the year’s best. Most of the Brandon character comes not from what he says, but the tiny expressions, the lust, pain, desire and of course, shame, that’s evident in his eyes. It’s a fearless, raw and brutal performance that many actors wouldn’t have the guts to play but Fassbender has no problems going dark, as he has done in previous work like Hunger and Fish Tank. Shame is undoubtedly a career best from an actor who has built a very strong resume in a short space of time and possibly the only thing standing between this performance and an Oscar nod is the racy subject matter and NC-17 rating.
Arriving early in the film to disrupt his bachelor lifestyle and get in the way of his addiction is Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). It’s clear from Sissy’s behaviour and their relationship that the siblings have gone through some form of abuse or trauma in their past, that McQueen wisely never reveals, and both are dealing with it in very different ways. Brandon deals with it inwardly, bottling everything up and hiding away with his addiction. Sissy is far more childlike and her struggle to cope is far more evident than Brandon’s. She turns to him for help, and hopes to help him too, but to Brandon she is nothing more than a cruel reminder of a past he’d much rather forget.
The performance from Mulligan is every bit as brave and painful as Fassbender’s, making Sissy a real bolt of lightning in the film, clearly cracking up throughout as Brandon retains his cold exterior. Providing one of the film’s many highlights, Mulligan gives an excruciating rendition of New York, New York that goes on for far longer than most directors would dare to allow but McQueen lets his camera watch Mulligan’s face the entire time, only cutting away to show Fassbender’s reaction, creating a scene that is perfect in every sense.
A film this brutal and honest will always be hard for some to watch but infinitely rewards those who do. McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) barely put a foot wrong in crafting such a strong character study and handing it over to actors as gifted as Fassbender and Mulligan to take the material and run with it. McQueen’s flair behind the camera should not be taken for granted either, subtly making every scene gorgeous to look at whilst occasionally breaking out virtuoso flourishes, such as the scene in which Brandon goes for a late night run. McQueen’s camera tracks him on one, unbroken tracking shot following him from block to block. This scene is just one of many that are phenomenal in this film which is ultimately a phenomenal feat in acting and direction that has rarely been equalled this year, maybe even this decade.