Skip to Content

55th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Shame’ serious drama for adults, in more ways than one


Directed by Steve McQueen

Written by Steve McQueen

UK, 2011

New York city hasn’t looked so beautifully cold and ironically isolating for quite some time as it does in Shame, Steve McQueen’s second collaboration with everyone’s favourite actor Michael Fassbender, the recipient of the best actor gong  at Venice for his brave and penetrating performance of a sex addicted advertising executive in a hyperboreal Big Apple. In his sparse Manhattan apartment  Brandon (Fassbender) spends his evenings detachedly  consuming hardcore porn on the Internet inbetween random, affection starved pick-ups in local bars and clubs. His computer at work has been quarantined for potential infection, an investigation that leaves him imperceptibly shaken for easy to guess indiscretions. Every night, like an automaton, he is seduced by the flickering flesh thrusting on his laptop screen (many of the interactions in Shame are mediated through technology) as he ignores repeated voice-mails from a pleading female, whom we later learn is his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling musician, who needs a place to stay for a few days. Arriving home one night Brandon discovers his sister in his shower having let herself in, and he reluctantly agrees to put her up for a few days. Although there is a hesitant affection between the siblings soon broader hints at a more complex past are exposed, Sissy seems similarly emotionally mutilated, after having a pathetically pleading conversation with a boyfriend to take her back she rebounds by inappropriately sleeping with Brandon’s boss David (James Badge Dale), placing more mental strain on her afflicted brother. As Sissy’s visit continues Brandon’s thwarted addictions begin to overwhelm him, although the possibility of a office romance which could provide genuine companionship and warmth shows potential in thawing his icy, insulated id.

Shame embraces the distant, austere style of Bresson and early Schrader; like an East Coast twin to that sun-drenched West Coast of American Giglio the film is ascetic excavation of a man in deep psychological distress, expressed through character in conflicting context. McQueen has not fully abandoned some the more declamatory instincts he utilised in Hunger (the piss-washing single take, the central pivot long dialogue scene) but they are more tempered and refined in Shame, and the film feels more instinctive and less formalist which in turn engages the viewer more closely with Brandon’s plight. McQueen likes long takes and three scenes in particular are some of the finest cinema of the year; a long frigid jog through the  nocturnal New York streets, a confrontation between Brandon and Sissy in the apartment with an outbreak of vivid emotional violence, and a revelatory rendition of New York from Mulligan in a downtown bar which is simply phenomenal. Indeed, it’s in the performances that Shame should be most proud of itself, as both Mulligan and Fassbender seem dangerously fragile and even slightly dangerous, and McQueen coaxes complicated and compelling renditions from them which are complemented by his taut, corruscating direction.

A Pandora’s box of potent themes arise, the distancing and isolation of modern life, and its stresses upon the psyche?  More directly a blistering attack on the psychic fall-out of easily accessible pornography? An autopsy on the devastating cost of addiction, need and desire? Unfortunately these questions are slightly eroded in a grinding climax when the film moves into slightly predictable territory given both characters psychological fugues, with a uneccessary flirt with one dramatic convention which is obvious and a little impotent. Regardless, Shame is weighty, serious, adult film-making and a  hardcore, essential text of 2011.

John McEntee

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival