Film Reviews

Shame review: Dir. Steve McQueen (2012)

My review was originally published on in 2012

When Steve McQueen took on the story of Bobby Sands in Hunger, the Irish republican who led inmates on a hunger strike at the infamous Maze Prison, he presented us with an uncompromising visual and exploration into the limits of human strength and resolve.  In Shame, written by Abi Morgan and McQueen, we’re taken on an uncensored ride, deep into the taboo world of sex addiction.

The link between Hunger and Shame is Michael Fassbender, an actor who is at the top of the most wanted list in the movies and here he proves again why all the plaudits are singing his praises. Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a man with a non-descriptive profession in New York who has a very secretive, private life.  Manhattan is bleak as well, grey structures and plain living follows Brandon through a day at the office and then into his addiction. There’s no place for the prudish in Shame as full frontal nudity and simulated sex acts dominate proceedings but they’re profoundly unsexy and powerfully destructive.  If he’s not picking up prostitutes, then he’s seeking pleasure via internet porn, fingering girls in the bar or relieving himself, anywhere.

However, when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly arrives, Brandon’s already self-destructive world begins to rapidly fall apart. Mulligan is more overstated as Sissy, another member of the Sullivan family who appears to also have had numerous problems growing up, although these are never exposed, it’s obvious she’s just as messed up as he is but in a more visual, emotive way.

Whereas Brandon screws away the pain, Sissy drowns in a combination of phony positivity and despondency. The scene that really defines both these siblings’ loss and emptiness is Sissy’s stripped-down jazz version of ‘New York, New York’. The camera is fixated on her for the entire song. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of dreams and the possible and how they’ve both lost that sense of reality they once knew.

Fassbender is crucial to making Shame equally uncomfortable and compelling. Brandon Sullivan holds all the intensity of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and by all intentions they both suffer from the same sickness, an illness that defines who they really are. Of course, Brandon isn’t killing people but he’s just as soulless when it comes to reality and when he’s faced with meeting someone who is real and genuine, he dismisses it and, well, let us just say hotel window to avoid spoilers.  Also, there’s an almost impossibly long tracking shot that has to be mentioned as we follow Brandon on a run along the streets of New York, he’s running to release tension but it’s a beautiful moment in unforgettable cinematography.

Shame is captivating and intensely intimate. McQueen has followed up Hunger with an unflinching and compelling film that explores the depths of addiction, and the consequential destruction and demise of the mind, and although it is sometimes difficult to watch, you won’t be able to keep your eyes off it.

Shame opens in the UK on January 13th 2012.

My review was originally published on in 2012


One thought on “Shame review: Dir. Steve McQueen (2012)

  1. Pingback: Mangrove review: Dir. Steve McQueen [LFF 2020] | critical popcorn

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