By David Keane

Shame is the story of a man ‘suffering’ from sex addiction, whose sister turns up at his flat unannounced and decides to stay, challenging the continuation of his carefully established routine.

I say ‘suffering’ loosely, not in relation to the condition as an addiction, but simply because in the early parts of the film we are left wondering how much the character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is really ‘suffering’ from the addiction, and how much he is simply being indulgent.

First off, yes, there’s plenty of sex and nudity. Both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan get their kit off within the first ten minutes and continue to do so throughout, but don’t go expecting to enjoy it. To Steve McQueen’s credit he doesn’t glorify the act itself, and instead the sex scenes are cold and mechanical, and generally make for uncomfortable viewing. In fact, it is surprising how un-erotic McQueen was able to make one scene involving a threesome. Instead, a dark, foreboding atmosphere hangs heavy throughout the film, and McQueen’s lingering camera work continually drains any eroticism, particularly when focused unflinchingly on the characters’ expressions.

Unfortunately, some of the scenes in which Brandon picks up women are not handled in quite the same manner, and there is at least one moment early on where you could be forgiven for momentarily worrying you were watching a film depicting a Henry Miller-esque catalogue of conquests. Luckily, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case.

Like any good habit depicted in cinematic form, things deteriorate as the film progresses, and we glimpse some of the shadows behind what is often seen as a ‘glamorous’ addiction. But we are not talking Trainspotting-style junky squalor or apocalyptic personal devastation and ruin a la Requiem For A Dream. The restrain with which McQueen handles the ‘life falling apart’ scenario is impressive, and typically ‘shocking’ scenes that could have jarred with the rest of the film if handled clumsily, are instead beautifully understated and presented against the backdrop of classical music minus any other sound.

Perhaps the most unsettling of aspect of the film is the relationship between Brandon and his sister (Carey Mulligan), both due to some tremendous acting on their part and an uneasy proximity between the two in many scenes. In the first scene we see the pair together, Carey Mulligan is caught coming out of the shower and instead of quickly covering up she seems comfortable remaining completely naked – something replicated even when tempers flare later on. These incongruous moments of nudity between brother and sister only set the viewer further ill at ease (unless you like that kind of thing).

There are plenty of hints towards even darker secrets lurking in the pasts of the siblings, but what is most enjoyable about the story is that most of these are left to the audience’s imagination. Instead, McQueen chooses to focus on how the pair continue to experience the after effects of whatever went on when they were children.

All in all, this is powerful, well executed cinema. Let’s just hope you managed to read this before taking that girl from your office to see it for a first date.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.