At the centre of Shame lies Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a high flying business type living in New York. Stricken by a debilitating sex addiction, Brandon has a skewed focus on life, which is dislodged by the sudden arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who bears the hallmarks of the same affliction. Upon seeing much of himself in her, Brandon unsuccessfully attempts to shake his illness, only to spiral further and further deeper into a metaphysical Abaddon.
The above synopsis might not sound like the most enjoyable, but the serious subject matter of the film is balanced nicely by a cool wit, and a surprisingly broad sense of humour. A waiter character for example, plays like something akin to the most cliched of 1970’s sitcoms, his ineptitude played up for laughs in a moment of otherwise staidness. The animalistic nature of the film most explicitly reflects the sibling antagonism of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. While the slight, almost alien pace of that particularly film essentially configures the manner in which the work is ingrained within the mind of the viewer, McQueen takes a slightly different approach with Shame, in that he bases the work on something of an axis, that once tipped the protagonist cannot recover from until he has completely reached his lowest ebb. A necessity for destruction in order to rebuild is conveyed, with Brandon’s fate ultimately salvaged but what he becomes. In spite of himself.
Shame is a work that reminds us just how truly impressive the long take can be, when used properly. Technical developments have seen an overuse, an exploitation of the long shot. On a purely technical level it is significantly easier to produce a three minute take now, in the age of the digital, than it was four or five years ago. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men comes to mind when one considers the development of the technique, with that films digitally aided effects hugely groundbreaking, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark did the world some good, by ending the trivial “longest track shot” race by essentially becoming one long tracking shot itself. Now one must look further to be genuinely impressed. And while they might not be the longest, or the most technically charged, the long takes of Shame are up there in the hypothetical list of greatness with the likes of Scorsese’s Copa, Welles’ Mexico Border and Godard’s Traffic Jam. As Brandon runs across the streets of New York we are reminded of those great uses of the tracking shot, as we are earlier in a sequence in which Mulligan sings a slowed to a standstill rendition of John Kander and Frank Ebb’s ‘Theme From New York, New York’, in a version of the song stripped of all of the bombast and grandeur that one would associate with Frank Sinatra or Liza Minnelli’s take on the song. As Mulligan’s Cissy whispers the song McQueen’s camera is unflinching and focussed upon her face for the duration of the first verse and chorus, before attention turns to Brandon, his fixed expression the source of great drama as it breaks to the trail of the song.
Elsewhere stylistically the film remains vital and impressive. Focus is used to portray a world slowly blending in and out of reality, acting almost as a shield between the viewer and the acts taking place on screen. It’s interesting to see McQueen relying upon cinematographic technique to mask his tale, instead of the usual editing tricks. As such any impact rendered remains whole and immersive. The sense of escalation is similarly well portrayed; its no mistake that Brandon’s journey begins with him already submerged on the New York City Subway, nor is it a coincidence that his epiphany falls way up in the clouds of the high rise apartment in which the character resides. Dramatically the film is something of a departure from Fassbender and McQueen’s previous collaboration, 2008’s Hunger. While that film downplayed the performance of it’s lead, Shame, especially in its opening moments, forcibly encourages a sense of the hyperreal.
The success of the film hinges upon the two core performances. Both Fassbender and Mulligan impress in what will no doubt be referred to in the shorthand as “difficult roles”. While its easy to reflect upon the challenges of such performances, that in itself acts as little more than a reflection of our own unease, as opposed to the function of the roles, and in turn the film itself. While those of a sensitive disposition when it comes to the portrayal of sexuality will no doubt be put off by the inevitable tabloid uproar, themselves privy to far more explicit imagery themselves (due to a lack of context), it ought to be said that Shame is barely any more extreme than the average adult-orientated drama.
The overriding dark nature of Shame is reflected in the films closing beats. By not wrapping up the tale in a traditional manner McQueen ensures that no happy endings overshadow or underplay the extremes of what have fallen before. It’s hardly glib, but anything remotely comfortable would have undersold the film completely. While open to interpretation, we are left with a sign off that is essentially hopeful, which is the most that could be expected of a tale that is so firmly rooted in the depths of Hell for much of its running time.