Shame (2011)


Director: Steve McQueen. Film 4/See-Saw/UK Film Council/Momentum/Lypsync/HanWay (18)


Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman. Writers: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan. Camera: Sean Bobbitt. Music: Harry Escott. Sets: Judy Becker.

Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Elizabeth Masucci, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Rachel Farrar.


The carefully cutlivated private life of Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) allows him to indulge his sex addiction – whether with prostitutes or girls he meets in bars or when out and about. This is disrupted when his sister Sissy (Mulligan) arrives, unannounced, for an indefinite stay.


Michael Fassbender has a big dick.

Phew! OK, now that the ‘shock and awe’ announcement is over, let me get down to chattering on like I always do about a  film that is quite moving – if, by moving, you mean glacial movement. For Shame is a cold, distant movie that you wouldn’t want to run your fingers over. But don’t worry, I’ll say a bit more about that penis later, for on that there is evidently much to discuss.

A film about a sexual obsessive on self-destruct whose damaged, needy sister moves in was never going to be a barrel of laughs. This is indeed intense, almost nihilistic cinema, but rewarding, if only for the committed performances and an assured, smart hand behind the camera.

This is only McQueen’s second full-length motion picture as director, but you’d think he was as much of a pro as the hookers Brandon hires. The first film  (which, incidentally, snagged many international film awards) also starred Fassbender and was an equally stark, stripped down film. This was Hunger, in which Fassbender led a hunger strike at a Northern Irish prison. Here though, McQueen swaps the empty, plain interiors of a jail for the white, grey and silver minimalism of the post-Yuppy New York professional. But now the core of the story is not denial of a basic human need, but over-consumption on it.

McQueen shows considerable balls; this is fruity subject matter, but the result is most definitely not sexy. Despite the oodles of humping on display, this is neither erotic nor pornographic. McQueen’s film inhabits a strange, libidinous hinterland where penetration of the flesh does not lead to arousal in the cinema patron, nee voyeur.

But credit where it’s due, he is a bold film-maker, not afraid to show in almost genital detail with his camera the slow moral decline his lead character is undergoing. Fassbender has sex with a girl his friend had tried (and failed) to pick up in a bar, banging her unceremoniously against a wall, directly above which the word ‘Fuck’ is graffited. Surveying the mess Sissy has made of his front room when she first arrives, he picks up her woolen scarf with a baseball bat, the phallic shaft penetrating through the material that then slips down it.

From a gay man’s point of view, it could be that the most important and longest scene, in which Brandon has a near breakdown and roams about town trying to pick up anything, seeing him finally relying on a man in an underground gay sex bar, is degrading, almost homophobic. But this point could also be viewed as the zenith of a man’s night long sexual crusade through NYC, in which all in his path are conquests.

Fassbender is the cinematic man of the moment, with an already mightily impressive CV to his credit (X-Men: First Class, Jane Eyre. Haywire is also in cinemas at the moment and the ‘David Cronenberg takes on Freud and Jung’ drama A Dangerous Method is slated for release soon) so perhaps it’s not surprising he looks a little peeky, upstairs if not down.  It’s a difficult performance to nail; on the one hand, you would be forgiven for thinking this is the ultimate Hollywood A-lister’s wet dream. He gets to have sex on screen with lots of attractive women as a character who is professionally and financially successful, feted and looked up to (at least by other men). But for exactly the same reasons, the character is also dangerous, empty and emotionally bereft. That he is a vastly more talented actor than anyone else you will find at the multiplex means he traverses this emotional tightrope with gingerly skill. Rather than essaying a person who feels nothing, Brandon has subtle shading, particularly when dealing with his troublesome sister.

McQueen gives Mulligan as frank a first scene as any actress could get in cinema and one that leaves us in no doubt she and her brother are two troubled souls with a shared past, very possibly being involved in an abusive relationship. Mulligan is a talented actress, used to playing put-uppon innocents, but thereafter she fails to ignite properly. She’s hampered by an extended singing scene (she is a bar artiste) that jars the flow of the film (McQueen should have shortened this, it really is excruciating) and an ocean-jumping accent that puts Kelly Osbourne in the shade (English actresses take note: emphasising your ‘R’s’ does not a stateside voice make).

And you thought I wouldn’t mention that penis again…oy veh! It really is big.


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