Shame (2011)


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

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.


Fassbender is the full package in a carnal drama that spares no blushes and pulls no punches. Likely to be one of 2012’s bravest and best.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • lukeworm100

      Jul 18th 2012, 13:55


      Shame review (4/5 stars) A very contemporary and powerful piece that packs a truly potent punch. The film follows a man with a scary sex addiction and how his lifestyle spirals out of his control when his sister arrives at his house for an indefinite stay. You will find yourself questioning what you are watching due to the frequent graphic content and the always sombre and bleak mood accompanied by an atmospheric piano backing track. You would not watch this film if you are looking to be cheered up or if you wanted a romantic film because this is a hard hitting provocative film that cannot be forgotten. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are on top form as brother and sister and have really believable on screen chemistry and Michael steals the film with a creepy Oscar worthy performance. This is a film that stays with you after you watch it because it is a sex fuelled and emotionally charged and clamps you down and will not let up. Overall it is an emotional rollercoaster that is not for the faint of heart.

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    • luke100

      Aug 27th 2012, 22:12


      I love Fassbender (both acting and name) and Mulligan is fine (shame about the Labeouf association) and the film is very (as every film review/blog/person with fixie bike explains) stylish. It's just... A good looking guy (with a great real name) that has a sex problem and sleeps with beautiful women that has an awesome place finds his self indulgent sister at his apartment? I mean come on, I've had worse crises in the toilet (with more crying). As events escalate (Fassbender h*****g more beautiful women with a floppy no show, his sister crying/singing) it just seems the problems the characters have are (stylistically) worlds away from the real (ugly) people I know (or will know). If I heard anyone tell me (man or woman) 'Yeah, I need sex all the time and I get it regularly with beautiful people. Anyway my job is awesome because I do nothing and my boss really likes me and I get paid a lot. My apartment is amazing. Its just sister has turned up and I don't really get on.' I would cry and really think about the s**t I need to sort out (like 'Why do I keep using brackets?'). The acting is great, but it is essentially about them acting out problems beautiful rich people have. The final act Mulligan does mirrors the (stylish) selfish and absorbent problems wealthy people in Sloane Square would have. It's a Shame(less) this wasn't as gritty and real as I had hoped. I gave it an extra bonus star for Fassbender's climax face which I have now adopted (but still need to use, although have been practicing in the mirror... a lot).

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    • Jareth64

      Dec 31st 2012, 12:09


      luke100 makes a great point above - not all of us get to be a very handsome, successful professional with a great job and an enormous p***s. It's hard to feel too sorry for him! But it's a great performance by Fassbender as he descends into a a world of relentless sex with attrractive women. Life is difficult.

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