Steve McQueen is a visual artist, writer and film-maker from London whose second directorial feature, Shame, was released in 2012. His debut feature, Hunger, about the Irish hunger strike in 1981, helped launch his feature-film career and propel Michael Fassbender from aspiring actor to mainstream star-in-waiting. In this second collaboration, McQueen and Fassbender’s partnership not only equals their previous achievements but highlights how far they’ve evolved and how bright their futures really are.
Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a successful businessman in New York City whose life is ordered, routine and devoid of emotional connections. This manifests itself in an addiction he has to sexual pleasure. One day, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his apartment and asks to stay because she is a singer who has just got a gig performing at a local bar. Reluctantly, Brandon accepts and finds the structure of his life begins to fall apart as the chaos surrounding Sissy is brought to bear upon him.
McQueen seems able to get the best out of Fassbender. Having given him one of the most challenging roles of his career in Hunger, McQueen strips down his favourite actor’s blossoming Hollywood glamour, leaving us a wholly naked (both physically and mentally) and raw performance. His character’s neat, organised routine is perfectly destroyed by the roaring, emotionally unstable and entirely convincing force of nature performance by Mulligan. Both characters are deeply broken and any chance of finding solace with one another is constantly shaken by their overwhelming mental deficiencies.
McQueen’s visual style and flair is at the forefront of Shame. There are some beautifully framed shots and a series of jaw-dropping, single-frame shots, like Fassbender running through the streets of New York City at night, or Mulligan performing a blues version of New York, New York. This is where he excels as a visual director and gives an insight into the potential he has as a world-class director.
Unfortunately he takes it too far too often, with many scenes elongated and in need of editing. It becomes self-indulgent and causes certain scenes to drag and, as beautifully shot as Shame is, it remains about 15 minutes too long. The cinema is not the place for an art installation “ territory Shame is sometimes guilty of wandering into. Luckily he reigns himself in most of the time, and he is clearly learning the craft of feature-film direction rather than short installation pieces. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s getting close to marrying the artistic with the narrative. When he does, we’ll be in for a real treat.
Even with this mistakes and directorial missteps, McQueen once again proves he is an auteur in the ascendancy. Shame is a dynamic, beautiful, bold and unique piece of artistic film-making. Two sensational central performances, cruelly overlooked at the Oscars, and a series of incredible scenes interspersed with a keen eye for detail and a sweeping urban orchestral arrangement underpinning one man’s breakdown, help to make Shame not only a worthy successor to Hunger, but a better overall film.