My friends have suggested that I sound like a stalker every time I say that ‘I found Michael Fassbender first’, and they may have a point, but I really did find him before he started appearing on the cover of pretty much every other entertainment glossy. With Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) he impressed me, with the subsequent Fish Tank (2009) he had secured my loyalty – and by the time ‘everyone else’ saw him in Inglourious Basterds (2009), I was already the president of the fan club. So, I insist: I found him first.
Such quibbles aside, Fassbender is going from strength to strength – and his performance in Shame is simply mind-blowing. He plays Brandon, a well-to-do, 30-something
living the high life. He works
hard, parties harder and is a confident, attractive man. There is one complication
though. He has a sex addiction. What is initially shown as a
debauched lifestyle (so what if he sleeps with prostitutes, tries to pick up
strange women at parties or on his way to work, or jerks off to porn every
night – doesn’t everyone?!), slowly starts emerging as an actual problem. But Brandon has things under control. His demons are private and his peers are to never find out. New Yorker
This delicate balance is instantly toppled when his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), suddenly turns up at his apartment and requests a few days' stay. Sissy is clearly messed-up. She is disturbed, reckless and seems to have an appetite for sex with inappropriate men, followed by an unrelenting obsession, almost like she is looking to be rejected or abused, or both. Her relationship with her brother is odd at best and very, very discomfiting at times. And though she pretends to be innocently sexual around him, Brandon's reactions to her every gesture make it very clear that there is a history to their relationship that is unsavoury.
The story focuses on Brandon's descent into hell, as he loses control over a very carefully built sham life, where his addiction takes over and all but destroys him, and where he stands to lose everything he's ever worked for. Before the audience's eyes, this desirable, male animal becomes a worthless, quivering slave to obsession - and yet, we just can't look away.
Steve McQueen is a truly remarkable director and storyteller. As with Hunger, he has once again filmed long scenes, in single takes, to extraordinary effect. The camera angles he has chosen throughout the film are unconventional, bold and exciting. The performances he has extracted, out of both Fassbender and Mulligan, are exceptional. The subject matter, which in the hands of a lesser film maker could have easily been sensationalist and vulgar, is just so powerful and almost...beautiful, in all its ugliness. What is quite wonderful about this film is that we never really know anything. We are never given the full information about Brandon and Sissy's past. All we know is that they left Ireland many years ago and moved to the US - and there seems to be a sort of secret buried in that simple fact; a secret that may or may not hold the key to two very damaged siblings. We can assume what we like, but we are never given neat, little snippets to help us along the way. We are never really given the opportunity or the right to judge. All we get is a window to watch two fairly likeable characters, become completely broken - and that journey is so unbearable at times, it is painful to watch.
Michael Fassbender is being hailed as the next big thing - and he really does deserve the praise. He reminds me of Christian Bale at times - and it is not just because they both have an animalistic grace or the fact that Brandon's initial scenes were in some ways reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000) - but rather how both these actors are able to convey a level of unpredictability that few others can. There are at least three scenes between Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, where I was gripping my seat and fearful of what would happen next - and besides excellent direction, it was due to excellent acting that those scenes worked the way they did. He has delivered a smouldering performance - a flawless depiction of rage, self-loathing and pain. Mulligan, herself, is fantastic in the film. She is emerging as a very fine British actress and God knows we need some more of those.
Shame is not a film for everyone. But for some it is a near-perfect work of art. Recommended for only those that can put up with it!