Shame, 101 mins, rated R 18+, opens 9 February 2012.


(This is my review as published in the Feb 2011 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

Shame is the second feature film from director Steve McQueen, and it’s his second collaboration with the talented German-born, Irish-raised actor Michael Fassbender. Their first film together was Hunger (LSJ Oct 2008), a tough and powerful film about the Irish Troubles, focusing on the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands.

At first, Shame seems light years away from Hunger: Both films are provocative, but where Hunger told the story of a political prisoner who refused to take food until his body wasted away, Shame is about a man who is ruled by his sexual appetite. Whereas Hunger was about denial, Shame is about excess. Both films are extremely accomplished, but neither film is about joy.

In Shame, Fassbender plays Brandon, who’s in his thirties, an executive at a nameless, anodyne corporation in downtown Manhattan. Everyone spouts management jargon, but we never find out what they do. Brandon’s enthusiastic but obnoxious boss (James Badge Dale) is married, yet makes excruciating attempts to pick up women.

But Brandon seduces women effortlessly, and all the time. His answering machine is filled with messages from a distraught woman (we assume its a jilted lover – we later find out who it was). He never calls back. He flirts wordlessly, predatorily, with a woman on the train. He masturbates often and watches porn on his computer, at home and at work, to the point that his boss has to confiscate it. He uses prostitutes and live sex internet sites.

He’s relentless about sex, and we don’t know why – until a woman turns up at his apartment unexpectedly. She has a key, but she’s not a girlfriend. She’s his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, from Lone Scherfig’s, An Education (2009), and soon to be seen as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby).  Sissy’s got problems, and needs to stay with Brandon for a while. But this might interfere with Brandon’s lone, repetitive existence, and force him to deal with someone who is real, who will be there the next day.

Brandon’s conflicted reaction – involving yet more sex and seduction, and an abortive but heartbreaking attempt to connect with a lovely work colleague – is played out against a fascinating depiction of the city in the background. We see the city from above, from a swanky club or an expensive apartment, all twinkling lights and distant glamour, or we are in the subway, with thousands of strangers. We see long takes of the city’s streets, close-up and grimy, filled with the homeless and the wandering. There’s violence in a back alley. We plunge, with Brandon, through the various circles of hell. There’s plenty of sex, or people wanting sex, but no sign of human warmth or communication.

All the performances here are powerful and fearless. Fassbender is (once again) astonishing: he won Best Actor at the 2011 Venice Film Festival for this role. Carey Mulligan is brave and strong in a role that calls for her to bare her body and her soul. And both James Badge Dale as Brandon’s boss and Nicole Beharie as his colleague, give impressive support.

Director McQueen is a visual artist who won the Turner Prize for contemporary art in 1999 for one of his film installations, and was made a CBE in 2011 for service to visual arts. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker both worked with McQueen before on Hunger. All involved are serious artists and this is a serious, adult film.

Hunger received an MA classification when it was released in Australia in 2008. Shame has been given the more restrictive rating of R 18+ (so it can only be seen by those aged 18 and older, and it can’t be marketed as widely). Both films have the power to shock, but where Hunger mostly involved violence, torture, gore and bodily functions, Shame mostly involves sex and nudity. Shame received a tough NC-17 rating in the US too.

Fassbender was surprised and disappointed at the NC-17 rating, saying "Most of us have sex, so I don't understand what we're trying to sweep under the carpet or repress... Why should it be more normal to, like, chop people's heads off and shoot people? Does that mean that that's more acceptable or closer to us as human beings?".

Fassbender may have a point about what he sees as a hypocritical distinction made between violence and sex in film rating systems, but he’s on shakier ground with Shame. The sex in Shame is not typical: it’s pathological. Shame explores dark corners of the human psyche. It is not a film for children, and, like Hunger,  it is not an entertainment. McQueen is using cinema – and this time a brilliant music score too – to explore the uncomfortable, raw, physical aspects of the human condition. In Shame, as in Hunger, the body is the ultimate battleground.