Shame is both a painfully intimate depiction about sex addiction and also a more general look at trauma, dealing with pain and modern city life. Fassbender plays a successful man who lives in a swanky and somewhat sterile condo. He lives alone, using sex and porn to hopelessly try and fill an emotional void within himself. When his sister (Mulligan) turns up we realise that these two come from a very negative place (which wisely isn’t disclosed) and the film’s scope opens up to become an exploration of how people deal with pain, how modern life shapes that and what human elements cripple attempts to reconnect and put the past behind you.
The two lead performances by Fassbender and Mulligan are both excellent; Fassbender excels with a carefully constructed character who is as heartbreaking in one moment as he is thrilling in another. His work is often marked by a subtly and reservedness which pits him perfectly against Mulligan’s more chaotic depiction of an emotionally distraught and vulnerable singer who is struggling to hold it all together. In case you haven’t already guessed this is not, by any stretch, a feel-good movie. Moments of light relief are very few and far between, to the extent that when they are there they almost feel alien in contrast to the pervading sadness that emanates from pretty much every scene in the film.
Shame‘s director Steve McQueen makes a lot of intelligent decisions throughout the film including to not explain away what negative past the two siblings share, using visual language rather than dialogue effectively and also to hold certain shots for longer than is expected to give them a real power and meaning beyond what they would normally hold. Given that it is easy to forgive the film’s occasional and mild slips into art-house indulgence as these are rare and pretty minor issues in the scheme of the film. The film curiously strikes a balance between experimentation with the camera and extraordinary visual restraint which creates a tension which mirrors the internal conflict going on within our protagonist, a battle which occasionally breaks out in rage and violence.
What’s key about Shame is how it intelligently depicts loneliness, addiction and pain without condescension or over dramatisation. It’s also the least sexy film with this many sex scenes; the sex and nudity here is often cold and always is used as a measure by which to gauge the character’s struggle and despair, rather than to titillate the audience. This isn’t an easy watch by any means, but if you haven’t seen it yet then I strongly recommend that you do. Excellent lead performances, a difficult subject tackled correctly and an often exquisitely good looking film make this one of the best movies of the last few years.
What is the film’s greatest strength? Michael Fassbender’s lead performance.
Its greatest weakness? It’s occasional slips into arty indulgences.
Would I see it again? Absoloutley. I’ve seen Shame a couple of times now and, although it isn’t easy to watch, it’s really worth the effort.
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