Shame (2011) – Film Review

shame movie review

Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Certificate: 18

by Nate Wisniewski

“A friend of mine has a quote,” says Steve McQueen, director of Shame, Film 4’s latest offering: “I don’t sh*t on demand. Meaning, things take time.”

Certainly, Shame, a film that explores sex addiction, is in no rush. There is not too much in the way of dialogue and action and this prevents the film from moving along at any real pace. This can be difficult at first for the viewer. Extended shots are common, with scenes beginning and ending just a little out of sync with when they ‘should’, in terms of the narrative. This creates a lingering feel, as we wait around for scenes to begin and end in much the same way the characters wait around for things to happen in their lives.

It all works rather well, though, thanks to some solid execution on pretty much all fronts. In particular, the musical score, which evokes a sense of unease and detachment while managing to avoid an explicitly negative atmosphere.

Shame shows a glimpse of a seemingly successful New York ‘suit’, whose sex addiction threatens his normal life and the relationships around him. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of sex scenes in it. But in a movie where everything is sexualised, the sex itself becomes almost desexualised, and often seems detached and remote. Director Steve McQueen and writer Abi Morgan developed the idea of writing a film about sex addiction together and the director (also an established artist) was involved throughout the scriptwriting process. This, clearly, has had a huge influence on the film, with emphasis placed on creating a mood and strong images over clever wordplay.

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“Brings a fragile humanity to the roles”

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a silent movie. I mean, there’s dialogue in the film, it’s just very naturalistic. And there are no filmic expository monologues in it either. This, coupled with the long extended shots, create a sense of isolation and leave us to guess much of what the characters are thinking throughout the film. But thanks to an excellently developed script, considered cinematography and superb performances from the actors, the film is all the better for it.

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are on superb form as siblings with unmentioned sexual tensions, bringing a fragile humanity to their roles. Its unwillingness to judge, or tell the audience how to feel, is at the very heart of Shame, and, it has to be said, it is the film’s greatest asset. This allows it to explore a subject matter such as sex addiction without marginalising or glorifying it. And it is this, more than anything else, which makes Shame a success.

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“A worthy exploration of sexual addiction”

It is an isolating, yet realistic, snapshot of how some live in the modern world. The way the film builds tension is also interesting. Without relying solely on dialogue or action, it employs other means, such as an unmentioned cut that appears on Brendan’s (Fassbender) cheek, leading us to wonder what has happened to him. Similarly, the lack of character back-stories, or any real suggestions as to what made the characters into the ‘people’ they are, poses more questions than solutions.

In turn, Shame seems to ask us what makes us the way we are, suggests we might not be so different from the characters within the film, then moves out of the picture to leave the discussion to us. It’s compelling cinema and, as well as a worthy exploration of sexual addiction, the film also manages to capture the absurd, unreasonable moments life throws at people, in a compellingly real way. Yes, it’s arty. No, you shouldn’t watch it with your gran. But if you like your films to be the catalyst of an interesting discussion, you’ll love Shame.


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