Star Rating: 3/5
Few would consider having an active sex-life to be a bad thing. But what if one were to suffer from a compulsive need for sex? Such a problem exists in society. Shame, despite its faults and gloominess, illustrates the torment that this syndrome can cause people.
The film centres round Brandon (Michael Fassbender – 300, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus), a high-flying manager or executive (in a job that is not defined), who cannot control his urge for sex. In his nice, relatively up-market flat in New York City, he hires prostitutes/escorts or watches pornography endlessly. At work, he watches pornography (to the extent of having his hard-drive removed because it’s filled with viruses) before going to the bathroom to masturbate. Every woman he sets eyes upon is a potential victim of his insatiable lust.
Yet, none of this appears to make Brandon any happier. Soon his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan – An Education, Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps, The Great Gatsby) comes to stay at his apartment, bringing out the worst in his frustrations and temper.
Shame’s plot is simple, but morbid. The mental torture that Brandon suffers from is excruciating (despite having an addiction that many would consider to be pleasurable). Unlike with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, played by Ben Barnes in the 2009 film, there is no enjoyment in sex for Brandon (or deal with the devil for that matter). Sex is just a constant, agonising thirst that can never be quenched. The threesome scene near the end reveals the degree of pain this addiction causes him. (Although, how Brandon maintains his stamina for so much sex is quite remarkable. One wonders if there are enough hours in the day for work, exercise and all of that sex.)
Brandon’s drug-like compulsion for sex and pornography has also come to seemingly destroy any chance of him having a relationship too. When he tries one with Marianne (Nicole Beharie – American Violet, The Express, The Last Fall), a pretty, young work-mate, he finds himself incapable. This is because the idea of love in sex has become an anathema to him.
Yet, apart from Brandon’s uncontrollable lust, Shame’s storyline loses direction quickly. This makes the film’s 101 minutes seem (frustratingly) like it will go on indefinitely. The plot also fails to explain Brandon’s background, as well as badly under-developing his relationships with his messed-up, needy sister; with his amiable and attractive fellow employee; and with his married, but embarrassingly desperate boss, David (James Badge Dale – 24: Day 3, The Departed, The Grey).
If the storyline (even with the explicit sex scenes) doesn’t hold the audience’s attention, Michael Fassbender’s performance certainly will. Fassbender delivers an excellent display that is as intense as it is brave and consistent. His green eyes stare at women like a hawk-bird to its prey. They also hint at an anger and pain, a deep shame, buried within Brandon that he refuses to recognise or counter. Does he do this because his syndrome is apparently humiliating and a taboo subject in society?
Fassbender might be the stand-out performer of the movie, but none of the supporting cast play badly. Carey Mulligan again gives a solid account of herself. She has a very different character here to the ones she played in Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps and Never Let Me Go. Nonetheless, she demonstrates that she can play a whiny, emotionally-deficient, unstable girl, craving affection, with equal plausibility. Similarly, despite their short and limited roles, neither Nicole Beharie nor James Badge Dale damage their reputations with their performances in Shame.
The impressiveness of the acting is enhanced when considering that director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Twelve Years A Slave) takes long-held shots for much of the film. Many of the scenes have no breaks or changes in camera angles. This style of filming demands immense concentration from the actors. That they make their acts look natural is credible and significant.
McQueen’s other noticeable technique in Shame is to use silence and little music to ram home to viewers Brandon’s loneliness and internal agony. When McQueen does adopt music, it is generally the main soundtrack which is comprised of long-held notes by stringy instruments and a subtle fast-beat. The main theme tune may lack Requiem For A Dream’s soundtrack’s feel of a crisis that is spiralling out of control, but it helps to compound Brandon’s lack of self-worth and his sense of self-hatred.
Over-all, Shame passably explores a problem that is not discussed much or recognised in present-day society. (After-all, one might think, how could having sex regularly be the cause of a major psychological disorder? It should be the other way round, right?) Shame has its deficiencies, it might appear directionless, and it might make for depressing viewing. Nevertheless, Michael Fassbender’s brilliant and courageous performance forces one to empathise with Brandon’s suffering and self-harm, as well as obliges one to appreciate what the syndrome can do to people in general.