Shame (2011)

12 Jan

Having forged such an effective working relationship on Hunger, Shame reunites McQueen with the megalithic Michael Fassbender for his second directorial feature. Fassbender, who so elegantly portrayed Bobby Sands in McQueen’s debut Hunger, plays Brandon, a bored New York yuppie who indulges in his burgeoning sex addiction at any given opportunity.

Brandon lives a repetitive, unfulfilling life, the tedium of his corporate desk job only interrupted by visits to prostitutes and continual masturbation. He’s a haunted soul, utterly consumed by his craving for sexual satisfaction, with Harry Escott’s haunting score testament to his internal conflict and strife.

Brandon exists on the fringes as an almost ethereal observer of normality. On a night out with his boss David (James Badge Dale), he causally watches on from the outside as David flirts and dances with women, completely disconnected from these alien social conventions. Yet his effortless aloofness only serves to increase his mystique and attraction.Brandon is in effect an empty vessel, albeit a calculated and meticulously controlled one, almost Bateman-esque in his demeanour. It’s only the unexpected arrival of his songstress sister Sissy (a magnetic Carey Mulligan) that threatens to derail him completely. Sissy arrives replete with relationship troubles and boundless energy. She’s a livewire and although her relationship with Brandon is as fractious as it is flirtatious, she manages to bring some much needed colour into his life. Sissy’s beguiling, unsettling effect on Brandon is perfectly emphasised by Sean Bobbit’s increasingly warm cinematography, particularly during Sissy’s quite magnificent bluesy rendition of New York, New York. McQueen literally transfixes his audience on Mulligan for the duration of the song, while Brandon watching on struggles to maintain his self control for perhaps the first time. Fassbender tells of Brandon’s internal strife with a simple tear and a look of untold hurt in his eyes.

As much as Brandon struggles to establish any kind of meaningful connection with anyone, his naïve inability to embrace any level of intimacy beyond the sexual is telling. He almost sabotages a date with his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) by dismissing relationships and marriage as pointless and even when he thinks he might be getting close to her the spectre of feeling something for someone else puts paid to that. For Brandon, sex is a functional necessity, completely and absolutely mutually exclusive from love or feelings.


It’s a self-destructive, almost nihilistic way of being, yet his addiction totally envelops and defines him. As Brandon’s mask of control slips further he engages in a series of vituperative outbursts at Sissy as she forces him to confront what he has become, yet by seeking solace and satisfaction in the likes of a gay club and the most beautiful threesome ever committed to celluloid, Brandon’s selfish pursuit of pleasure threatens his relationship with the one person who actually means anything to him.

McQueen betrays his artistic bent throughout. He possesses a magnificent eye, framing scenes like works of art and suffuses his picture with a warmth and deftness of touch. His direction blurs the lines between art and film, which McQueen himself referred to as “one continuous thing” and although he regards himself an “amateur”, his skill is undoubted. Abi Morgan’s screenplay is natural, unassuming and viciously funny at times. It’s clear she has done her homework into how sex addiction affects people and her understanding is clearly reflected in Brandon’s not always sympathetic vulnerability.

Carey Mulligan’s Sissy is sassy and confident and cements her place as perhaps the most interesting young actress working today. Fassbender though steals the proverbial show. His Brandon is as much about knowing glances and behind the eyes travails as it is about his sexual physicality. It’s a masterful, insightful and very real portrayal of the dichotomous nature of sex addiction. If there is any justice Fassbender will add to his Volpi Cup award that he picked up at Venice.

Shame is what all great films should be; challenging, compelling, beautiful and expertly realised. Yet the fact that it’s also elegant and shamelessly uncompromising means that it is nothing short of brilliant.

5 Stars *****

(This review originally featured at

2 Responses to “Shame (2011)”


  1. London Evening Standard British Film Awards: 90% spot on « crash/burn - February 7, 2012

    […] to his plethora of awards by scooping Best Actor for his sublime turns as sex addict Brandon in Shame and Rochester in Jane Eyre.   Fassbender was also a winner at last week’s RAFA’s (also […]

  2. What if…the Academy weren’t such pussies? How the Oscars should have played out « crash/burn - February 25, 2012

    […] not so much).  Replace them with  Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the hideously overlooked Shame and the line up is immeasurably […]

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