The Power of “Shame” by Will Kay

Posted on February 20, 2012


The hype surrounding Shame was deafening, at least for me, so I went to see it for some peace and quiet. Oh… silly me. I left with a most garrulous and disquieted mind. All the accolades accruing weren’t the only forces that drew me; the confluence of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, currently my two favourite actors, with Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen (the director of the most brilliantly desolate film I have seen: Hunger) was an undeniable force. My breath had been bated for many months. With such stratospherically high expectations, unsurprisingly my imagination proved more satisfying. However, it was a film of an extremely high calibre, which questioned the nature of intimacy and brought to mind Socrates’ maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The film follows the story of nymphomaniacal New York businessman, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), whose carefully balanced world is tipped off its axis when his unaccountable sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), sets up camp in his apartment. The story is sparse on the characters’ backgrounds, but it is understood that Brandon and Sissy shared a childhood trauma of some kind that haunts them still. The arrival of Sissy and Sissy’s insight forces Brandon to realise the hollow repressed life he is leading, but the shame of his addiction and the related intimacy issues with both Sissy and a date leave him in denial.

Like in his debut film Hunger about the IRA hunger strikes, McQueen (who also co-wrote this script) has chosen to build the story around the control of a very basic human need. This seems to be the source of his films’ power to shock and entrance their audiences. This base approach to Shame is backed up by some strong storytelling techniques. Especially important is McQueen’s use of the long-take, which is greatly effective in allowing the story to unravel in the audiences’ minds (and give them a bit of relief). The film’s cinematography is stunning (if you want to see this film definitely go to the cinema, rather than downloading it), but sometimes the mise-en-scene is too perfect and detracts from the emotion of the scenes, especially towards the end of the film. The modern score is expertly used to hold the film together and demonstrate Brandon’s growth. Despite all these successful aspects of the film, it does fall down a little with the script, which is perhaps slightly too subtle, so the audience is occasionally left in the lurch.

Mise-en-scene overload

Unsurprisingly, the performances given by Fassbender and Mulligan were deft and powerful. I am shocked that Fassbender has not received an Oscar nomination for this role, especially in a year where he had so many other brilliant performances. Fassbender was able to portray Brandon with so much empathy that he allowed the film to become as tragic and honest as it deserved to be. Mulligan produced one of my favourite scenes I have ever seen; when Sissy sings ‘New York, New York’ with the perfect amount of self-pity and hope, making a simple scene into a moment that defined the film.

Although perhaps not as brilliantly raw and beautifully horrific as Hunger, rather than leaving you speechless Shame leaves your mind awash with questions about how our society approaches addiction and the tragedy with which it is associated. It is a film that deliberately gets under your skin and compels you to properly think.

“Shame” is still screening in limited release across Australia. 

Will Kay is You’re Dripping Egg’s co-creator and editor-at-large. Possessing a unique talent for intensely-focused rambles, you can read more Will Kay in his The Return of the Midriff article.

Posted in: Movies