Few filmmakers have plumbed the depths of sexual addiction as fearlessly as director Steve McQueen has in "Shame."

Brandon - Michael Fassbender
Sissy - Carey Mulligan
David - James Badge Dale
Marianne - Nicole Beharie

Few filmmakers have plumbed the soul-churning depths of sexual addiction as fearlessly as British director Steve McQueen has in “Shame.” A mesmerizing companion piece to his 2008 debut, “Hunger,” this more approachable but equally uncompromising drama likewise fixes its gaze on the uses and abuses of the human body, as Michael Fassbender again strips himself down, in every way an actor can, for McQueen’s rigorous but humane interrogation. Confrontational subject matter and matter-of-fact explicitness will position the film at the higher end of the specialty market, but it’s certain to arouse critical acclaim and smart-audience interest wherever it’s shown.

There are many reasons to be grateful for “Shame,” not least of which is its chastening vision of a man in thrall to a craving fed by the conveniences of 21st-century technology and an urban, independent lifestyle. Still, the viewer needn’t have walked in the protagonist’s particular shoes to identify with the feelings of isolation and all-consuming need so piercingly examined here. From an aesthetic standpoint, one can only marvel at how Turner Prize-winning video artist McQueen has transitioned from “Hunger’s” austere study of enclosed environs to a more open, traditionally constructed narrative without abandoning the formal deliberation and moral concerns that have informed his work.

A beautifully composed, virtually wordless eight-minute sequence introduces Brandon (Fassbender), a handsome, successful Manhattanite in his 30s, getting ready for work and commuting from his midtown apartment to an office cubicle. But his routine is shot through with unease: From the first frame he looks haunted, almost half dead, and shots of him pleasuring himself in the shower and in the restroom at work, or making silent overtures to a pretty girl on the subway, provide queasy indications as to why.

More clues are dropped, with increasing bluntness. Brandon’s work computer is temporarily confiscated due to a host of viruses. When he and his boss, Dave (a fast-talking James Badge Dale), go out for drinks and pick up women, Dave’s excessive flirtation proves far less effective than Brandon’s cool reserve. Apart from these outings and regular one-night stands, Brandon has little interaction with others, leading a benumbed existence that seems to suit him fine.

Until, that is, his long-unseen younger sister, rather literally named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), turns up unannounced at his apartment and settles in for an indefinite stay. A blowsy, talkative, compulsively needy type drifting from one singing gig to another, Sissy is her brother’s polar opposite, and she proceeds to invade his carefully cultivated privacy in ways that range from the merely irritating to the downright irresponsible.

A director captivated by repetition and ritual, McQueen (who co-scripted with Abi Morgan) might well have withheld plot developments in favor of a spare, quotidian character study in the Chantal Akerman vein. But “Shame” pushes past mere observation. By bringing in Sissy and hinting at a past that clearly wounded the two siblings in different ways, the film breaks Brandon wide open, pushing him toward rock-bottom and forcing him to reckon with himself and others. It’s as if McQueen, having presented a soul in extremis, were unwilling to leave him in that condition.

We’re meant to understand that shame, which festers in solitude, can be a healing force when brought into the open. To that end, the film’s third-act calamity won’t convince everyone, but if it feels a bit studied as a climactic gesture, it in no way compromises the integrity of the characters and the difficult journey that lies ahead of them.

As self-starved IRA member Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” Fassbender gave a performance so frighteningly physical it seemed almost as committed an act of martyrdom as his character’s. He matches that achievement here and in some ways surpasses it, enacting a more figurative form of imprisonment and self-mortification. Completely unself-conscious about the full-frontal nudity and graphically simulated sex acts required of him, the actor peels back layers of lust and self-loathing to become a consummate vessel for the director’s intentions. Even when he says nothing, which is most of the time, Fassbender transfixes.

Sporting a short, bleached-blond hairdo and often clad in vintage garments that clash with David Robinson’s otherwise gray, toned-down costumes, Mulligan energizes the picture with a spirited, sassy turn that at one point also requires her to bare herself for the camera. Her character’s musical solo midway through the film, filmed almost entirely in a single closeup, is one of many exquisite interludes that give this tough-minded picture a soul. So, too, does Nicole Beharie, wonderfully real and affecting as Brandon’s co-worker Marianne, whose attempts to kindle a flame become the film’s heartbreaking centerpiece.

Seeming to unfold in perpetual night, the New York-shot production treats the city not just as a seductive backdrop but as an incubator of Brandon’s pathology, moving from sterile, glassy interiors to grungier environs as his descent quickens. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, who both worked on “Hunger,” retain their aesthetic of meaningfully framed long takes and tracking shots set to a controlled rhythm. But they allow the film to breathe more naturally in keeping with its less oppressive tenor, aided by composer Harry Escott’s resonant, largely cello-based score.

Popular on Variety



Production: A See-Saw Films production for Film4 and U.K. Film Council. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Robert Walak, Peter Hampden, Tim Haslam. Co-producer, Bergen Swanson. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay, McQueen, Abi Morgan.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Sean Bobbitt; editor, Joe Walker; music, Harry Escott; music supervisor, Ian Neil; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Charlie Kulsziski; set decorator, Heather Loeffler; costume designer, David Robinson; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Ishii; re-recording mixers, Paul Cotterell, Niv Adiri; visual effects, Lipsync Post; stunt coordinators, Manny Siverio, Roy Farfel; assistant director, Atilla Salih Yucer; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2011. (Also in Telluride, New York film festivals; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 99 MIN.

Cast: Brandon - Michael Fassbender
Sissy - Carey Mulligan
David - James Badge Dale
Marianne - Nicole Beharie

More Scene

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

  • Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Watchmen

    Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Talks 'Watchmen,' 'Matrix 4': 'I'm Not Nervous At All'

    Yahya Adbul-Mateen II is facing some serious pressure. The actor is in the middle of a massive career surge, taking on roles in HBO’s “Watchmen” and the upcoming “Matrix 4” — and with those roles, the expectations of their fans.  “I have the responsibility of upholding something that was already done while also bringing in [...]

  • David Lindelof Watchmen Premiere

    'Watchmen' Creator Damon Lindelof Weighs in on Martin Scorsese's Marvel Criticisms

    Damon Lindelof disagrees with Martin Scorsese about his recent claims that Marvel movies don’t qualify as cinema. The director’s proclamation, along with the polarized critical reception of “Joker,” are the latest salvos in a long history of questioning comic book movies’ place in cinematic history. The lingering question: Can superhero fare be considered “high art?” [...]

  • Anne Hathaway Modern Love

    Anne Hathaway Talks Mental Health Awareness, Playing a Bipolar Woman on Amazon's 'Modern Love'

    In Amazon Prime’s upcoming “Modern Love,” Anne Hathaway sheds light on an important facet of living with mental health issues, playing a bipolar woman who struggles with dating. “We’re all becoming more sensitive, wiser and more cognizant of gentility, and especially emotional gentility. I think those conversations are starting to happen. And I think the desire [...]

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content