19 January 2012

Review: Shame

(Dir: Steve McQueen, 2011)

It can be exciting watching a film by a first time director who shows a certain level of skill and personality that sets their work apart from most other new directors. But what happens when it comes to their next film, can they live up to the previous work or will they fall into the 'sophomore slump'? Enter Steve McQueen. His debut feature, Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikes in 1981, was a stunning piece of work. A difficult, challenging film that at times seemingly blurred the line between the visual arts and traditional filmmaking, as McQueen drew on his background as a video artist to create something fresh and visceral. So how do you follow that? The answer is with Shame.

Shame is a film about addiction and it’s debilitating effects on a life. It’s about sex addiction, an addiction with seemingly less public awareness and also less coverage in film than the more popular alcohol or drug addictions. In many ways McQueen’s style is ideal for a film covering this subject, as he manages to make both New York and the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seem impersonal and desolate, whilst ensuring the many sex scenes are cold, calculated and desperate, lacking the standard idealised Hollywood glow of carnality.

The acting throughout is excellent. Fassbender brings a naked rawness to the role, like in Hunger, that is all too believable. He seems trapped by his disease into acting out these impulses and forced desires - he can’t help it as this is the only way to tame what is inside him. Full credit must go the McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan for not giving us a back-story and a reason as to why Brandon has come to be like this. The reasons are unimportant, what matters is that this is how things are and he is heading down a negative path towards more desperate situations and a greater, potentially destructive, emotional void. This is all vividly brought to life on screen by Fassbender's perfectly judged performance.

Carey Mulligan continues to impress as Sissy, Brandon’s sister, who is strongly burdened by her own issues and has a deeply fractured relationship with her brother. There is a brilliant scene where, on stage, she sings a scintillatingly slow cover of New York, New York, through which she conveys all manner of deeply hidden emotions. The camera lingers, unmoving, on a continuous close-up of her face, singing, for at least half the song, before cutting away to show Brandon's reaction. It’s a masterful scene, aided by Mulligan’s impressive voice.

Throughout the film McQueen shows how adept he is at placing his camera. There are many scenes with long takes. No cuts away, no insert shots. This adds to the realism and helps make his films so compelling to watch. He has something interesting to say visually in an unconventional way and he knows how to use this tool to the benefit of the story.

Shame is a very dark, very cold film and its challenging and explicit nature makes sure that it's not a film for everyone. I was reminded somewhat of David Cronenberg’s Crash and its cold, detached view on sex, that if you scratch the surface of, reveals many hidden depths and holds a certain power over the viewer. I suspect Shame will offer something similar with repeat viewings, as even after watching it a first time it has a lingering power. Put simply, Shame is fantastic.

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