Shame (2011) review

A grubby, drowning nightmare of self-hate and angry rutting

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There’s plenty of ‘bang’ for your buck in Steve McQueen’s second feature. Yet Shame’s long, hard look at sex addiction proves anything but sexy. Think harsh, haunting and powerful instead. As in his blazing debut Hunger , McQueen plays Scorsese to Michael Fassbender’s De Niro, the star owning the film as tortured shag-slave Brandon.

He’s a grot-loving thirtysomething fucking the pain away in the lonely affluence of hip, chilly New York – until the arrival of his messed-up sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) drives his compulsions/perversions to levels he can’t conceal or quench. Brandon’s existence is a grubby, drowning nightmare of self-hate and angry rutting; Fassbender, who took Best Actor in Venice and could be on for an Oscar, is truly fearless.

Though exposed both emotionally and physically, he’s always understated, even as Brandon’s frustration escalates via depressing dates to back-street bonks, bar-room fingering and a final descent into hell splattered with vice and violence. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan’s ( The Iron Lady ) script offers both a slowbuild character study and a deft comment on dislocated city living.

The direction is bracingly assured, McQueen unfurling lengthy, unbroken takes, following Brandon on a cathartic run through grey, anonymous streets in one scene while in another fixating obsessively on Mulligan’s face during Sissy’s painfully drawn-out nightclub rendition of ‘New York, New York’. Not for the faint-hearted, prudish or impatient, Shame is as complex and ambiguous as its characters.

It’s a masterwork of ‘show don’t tell’ filmmaking that never fobs off viewers with absolutes, easy answers or a spelt-out root cause for Sissy and Brandon’s problems. Instead McQueen subtly insinuates possible past trauma with the odd look or deceptively throwaway line. Pity, then, that the somewhat miscast Mulligan can’t quite carry the weight of this world.

True, her character’s underwritten, falling too close to self-pitying stereotypes of female flakiness. But in the hands of a fiercer, more intense actress – Michelle Williams, say – the brewing torment of the sibling dynamic could have been heartbreaking.

Still, Shame remains a provocative portrait of a man in thrall to uncontrollable desire. It’s battering and ballsy, centred on a performance that brings pathos to porn-worship and gravitas to casual shagging in a city of people desperate to connect but unable to commit.

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Rosie is the former editor of Total Film, before she moved to be the Special Edition Editor for the magazine group at Future. After that she became the Movies Editor at Digital Spy, and now she's the UK Editor of Den of Geek. She's an experienced movie and TV journalist, with a particular passion for horror.