Micheal Fassbender reteams with the director of Hunger for this more salacious tale
Office worker Brandon (Fassbender) leads a secret double life of sexual addition, a craving which infests every moment of his daily life, leaving him unable to form a meaningful relationship. When his sister Sissy (Mulligan) stumbles back into his life, he’s forced try to change, to connect with another human being.
Writer/director Steve McQueen earned much deserved acclaim for his debut, 2008’s Hunger - a savagely drawn look at the final days in the life of hunger striker Bobby Sands. It was there he first connected with apparent muse Fassbender, who delivered a breath-taking central performance and the two have reunited for Shame.
It’s a markedly different film, in everything from location to theme and while the scale of the piece may seem larger, the result is ultimately far less effective.
Shame tries to deal with the complex issue of sexual addiction by crafting a portrait of a man with no defining features other than his insatiable lust. But that same shallow character gives the audience nothing to hold onto – no significant backstory, no sense of how he functions in day to day life. When he tries to go on a normal date, he ends up in an irate conversation about the impossibility of monogamy, a notion so completely alien to him he finds it laughable.
The relationship with his sister proves even more problematic, even violent. She is more obviously damaged, trying to find a place in a world which places little value on her. But Brandon, for all his supposed shame, seems fairly content with the rhythms of this life, at least on the surface.
And that’s the problem with the film; it deals with potentially powerful themes in a very basic manner, showing plenty of skin without getting to the core of the issue. It must be said that, while there’s plenty of flesh on offer, including an alarming amount of full frontal nudity from Fassbender himself, it’s rarely arousing. But nevertheless, it’s far from grim – with an attempt to show the characters desperation by visiting a stereotypically hell-like gay club a particularly pointless interlude.
Fassbender, at least, is excellent – but I’m beginning to suspect he always is. The sharp lines of his face, both handsome and forbidding, look etched with some kind of inner turmoil and he’s riveting on screen. Mulligan is fine, slightly less weepy than we’ve come to expect but she’d want to branch out of whiny characters soon.
The biggest disappointment is McQueen, who brings plenty of style of Shame but little substance. His long takes are back in abundance but often feel empty – a forlorn late night run unfolds in real time but I found my mind wandering so much I noted Fassbender passed two Starbucks. As in Hunger, there’s a single take conversation between two people here, potentially the high point of the film but it’s a dinner date between a mismatched couple rather than the intimate moment shared by Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in the former film.
Shame is home to another strong performance from Fassbender and some beautiful location photography in New York city but, like the protagonist himself, often feels curiously empty, devoid of any real commentary on the issue it is supposed to be addressing.