Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Shame

Sex in the City

Steve McQueen's second feature, following the provocative and extremely powerful Hunger, is the tale of a upper-middle-class sex addict in the Big Apple. Interpreted astonishingly by Michael Fassbender, Shame's protagonist Brandon Sullivan is a man living a life dominated by emotional disconnection. He ignores or harshly criticises his loving but troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). He pushes away - consciously and subconsciously - anyone he's close to making a connection with. He lives a life of internet pornography, pent-up frustration and regular visits to prostitutes. And he hates himself for it.

Shame has two great strengths. One is Fassbender, who brings a complex emotional depth to the role. Even in the scenes where society dictates he puts on the mask of normality, a raw frustration drives Brandon and makes him a fascinating protagonist. It's a tour-de-force from Fassbender, who bears all - both physically and emotionally - throughout the film. It's a testament to the strength of his performance that all Brandon's breakdowns are heartbreaking for viewer and characters alike. Fassbender gives it socks, and... ahem... other things that rhyme with sock.

The second set of triumphs are entirely visual. Under McQueen's direction, cinematographer Sean Bobbit's camera is every bit as hypnotic as Fassbender. Returning to the long, considered takes of Hunger (albeit less extreme this time around) there are frequent moments of cinematic beauty throughout the film. A technically impressive midnight jog is likely to bore some, but for me it showed the director marrying emotional force and visual showboating to impressive effect. Through thoughtful lighting and inventive framing, Shame captures the New York atmosphere wonderfully, and overall has one of the strongest visual identities in recent memory. And here's to a film that truly understands the possibilities afforded by a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Yet Shame ultimately lacks that special something to make it more than the sum of its parts. Most of the faults lie in the script. Naturally, this is designed as a character study, but the situations Brandon is placed in often lack originality or dramatic force. The Sissy subplot is weak and disappointingly formulaic. It's also repetitive - we learn little new about Brandon during his fourth or fifth aggressive outburst against his sibling that we didn't grasp first time around. It's not Mulligans fault, as we know from experience: she simply has little to work with. And she's certainly not the weakest character here - that dubious honour is awarded to an awkward waiter (Robert Montano) in a lengthy but misjudged date scene.

While the film's very considered pacing is sometimes deeply compelling, McQueen and co. sometimes overdo the long takes. Prime suspect is Mulligan's rendition of New York, New York. It certainly works for a while, as the camera takes the time to close in on both Sissy and Brandon. But by the time chorus number three is reached, and Mulligan enjoys a second close-up, for this viewer the point had been overemphasised. Elsewhere, the film lacks a shock factor. It's an oddly clean portrait of a sex addict, almost entirely devoid of danger (a light beating outside a bar is the worst our hero experiences). Brandon having a brief homosexual encounter and a threesome are presented as the character hitting his grimmest emotional nadir - climaxes that are strangely 'mild', and portraying these (hardly shocking) activities as almost nightmarish may offend some viewers.

There are other moments when the story manages to wring some subtle dramatic payoffs, and even during the film's more formulaic moments the acting and directorial force impress. But Shame falls short of greatness by presenting a troubled soul who never really experiences the truly dark depths that the film frequently teases. Last year's Guilty of Romance was a far more brutal and unusual (if occasionally uneven) tale of emotionless sex. Yet, despite its shortcomings, Shame remains compelling viewing, if only to see a talented actor, director and cinematographer honing their talents to create a film that - while far from perfect - still has a curious, ambitious voice.

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