Film review: Shame (18)

07:00 11 January 2012

Michael Fassbender, left, as Brandon and Carey Mulligan as Sissy in Shame.

Michael Fassbender, left, as Brandon and Carey Mulligan as Sissy in Shame.

Archant

Perhaps deliberately timed to coincide with the bleakest of seasons, Londoner Steve McQueen brings us his latest harrowing psychological drama, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

McQueen, who also takes co-writing credits here, memorably brought us Hunger in 2008, the uncompromising take on the IRA hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981. Fassbender returns with an equally intense performance as the star in Shame.

He plays Brandon Sullivan, a yuppie marketing exec in NYC living in a glossy apartment and wrestling with sex addiction.

And yes, it features acres of flesh and sex scenes aplenty, following Sullivan’s dysfunctional life trying to juggle a high-flying career with a penchant for women and every shade of porn.

But don’t expect titillation; Shame is built upon an almost unrelentingly bleak worldview.

The primeval funk of sex surrounds Sullivan - from his philandering boss to hookers and horny married women on the Tube - devouring all else and reducing him to a pitiful figure.

It’s hard not to feel genuine sympathy as he scours the internet for porn, picks up women in bars, pays for sex or plays voyeur amid New York’s anonymous high-rise glass apartments.

But it’s Mulligan captivating performance as Sullivan’s wayward sister Sissy - part-singer, part good-time girl - who provides the key to the plot, arriving on his doorstep just as his life starts to unravel.

As Sullivan slips further into the abyss and the siblings’ dark secrets are hinted at, what ensues is one of the most absorbing, unsettling and gripping films you’re likely to see this year.

McQueen’s unflinching camera blurs intimacy and intusion with long, lingering close-ups and one-take scenes that are often as engrossing as they are disconcerting to watch, stripping away the city’s veneer of racy glamour to reveal a cold, unfriendly metropolis populated by impulsive, damaged souls.

Yes, it’s a depressing, narrowly-focused commentary on today’s moral climate, but unblinking camerawork and absorbing, accomplished performances will have you glued throughout.

-Stephen Moore

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