Golden Globe Nominee: Best Actor (Drama)
Shame is a dispassionate treatment of a disturbing topic, and therein lies its power. Sexually graphic enough to earn its NC-17 rating in the U.S., yet made with a restraint that’s both unflinching and unnerving, this is a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide.
Directed by Steve McQueen from a script he co-wrote with Abi Morgan, this story of the obsessive behaviour of a man addicted to sexual activity demands an actor willing to completely reveal himself emotionally as well as physically. In Michael Fassbender, Shame has gotten exactly that.
The actor plays Brandon, a New Yorker first seen lying so exhausted in his rumpled, unmade bed that he could almost be dead. Laconic and self-contained, Brandon is not given to introspection or even conversation, but he doesn’t need to talk for viewers to figure out there’s only one thing on his mind at all times: the compulsive pursuit of sex.
Recorded in explicit but never pornographic detail, this is some of the most joyless sex ever put on screen, a compulsion to climax in which emotional connection plays no part. It’s the fixation of a tortured individual aghast at the self-destructiveness of his addiction but unable to change his actions or escape the shame they cause.
If Brandon is teetering on the edge of an abyss when the film begins, things get more complicated for him when his sister Sissy, a singer with a club date in New York, comes for a visit and weasels her way into an open-ended stay at his apartment.
Unflinchingly played by the gifted Carey Mulligan (who also sings a heartbreaking rendition of Kander and Ebb’s classic ‘New York, New York’), Sissy turns out to be as troubled as her brother but in a mirror-image way.
As over-emotional and out of control as Brandon is withholding, Sissy is neediness personified. In her insistence on emotional connection, she presses all of Brandon’s buttons without half trying. Her presence in his life makes him feel that the walls are truly closing in, making it clear that some kind of breaking point is unavoidable.
The film’s supporting cast, especially Nicole Beharie as a co-worker Brandon attempts to strike up a relationship with, James Badge Dale as his boss and Lucy Walters as a wonderfully enigmatic woman glimpsed on a subway, have all risen to the occasion, but it is Mulligan and most especially Fassbender that give the film its power.
The desperation, hostility and despair he conveys through the act of sex make Shame a film that is difficult to watch but even harder to turn away from.”
– Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times