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Released 13 January 2011
Director Steve McQueen

Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Writer(s) Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Producer(s) Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Origin United Kingdom
Running Time 99 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating TBC

Too close for comfort.

It’s been a few weeks since I saw Steve McQueen’s Shame and even with the benefit of that time to reflect, I’m still on the fence about it. I definitely can’t say that I enjoyed the time spent in the company of its protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender in a performance hotly tipped for awards season). In fact, as a film experience Shame could best be described as excruciating. But though there were moments when I couldn’t help but think that, much like Fassbender himself, the emperor may not be wearing any clothes, there were also moments when the intensity of the central performances and the cold voyeurism of the Steve McQueen’s direction combined to produce scenes of great power.

In Shame, Fassbender plays Brandon - a single New Yorker with a crippling addiction to sex. His every waking hour is spent in search of his next conquest, from call girls to bar hook-ups and a work computer riddled with pornography. When his younger sister Sissie (a brave but perhaps too brittle Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him, his life starts to unravel as he loses control of his well-constructed shell of detachment.

The flow of the film is strangely hypnotic. McQueen uses close-ups and tracking shots to place us as close to Brandon as possible; frequently focussing on the planes of Fassbender’s face - usually so handsome, here cold and unmoving or twisted in lust. For his part, Brandon lifelessly moves through a stream of uniquely depressing and difficult to watch sexual encounters. The effect is punishing almost to the point of nausea but is the perfect visual match for the subject matter. Like Brandon’s conquests, we are brought physically close to him while knowing next to nothing.

This is the point where the film both excels and is found wanting. Without being allowed to know more about Brandon, it’s hard to build empathy with him. Details of his past are deliberately withheld and the arrival of his sister is the only glimpse we get of a life that preceded the one he now has. Even then though, their conversations are intense but oblique, only hinting at some damage that has caused Brandon to retreat from human connection and Sissy to helplessly crave it.

Shame is impossible to enjoy but also impossible to ignore. It may not have the emotional impact of McQueen and Fassbender’s first collaboration Hunger, but it is a startling achievement for both of them.

- Linda O’Brien