It's New York, the present, and Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has his strictly compartmentalised double-life - a successful executive publicly, a leg-twitching sex addict privately - compromised when his damaged and volatile younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in to his flat unbidden. What follows is a somewhat episodic (and fairly graphic) sequence of events illustrating the implosion and explosion respectively of the brother and sister.
I had singled Shame out as my most anticipated film of the first quarter of 2012 (due in most part to the two principle actors and director Steve McQueen) and... it hasn't really lived up to my expectations. That's not to say there's not a lot in here to like - or even love - but there are some pretty fundamental issues that prevent a whole-hearted recommendation.
I'll talk about the film's major problem before getting into the (multiple) positives: it's the story. I don't like to spoil plot points, so I won't, but at the end of this film - after a great deal of intensity and drama - my overwhelming feeling was 'well, what was the point of that?' - or, more obliquely, to quote one of the film's saner characters: "what's the point of us being here if we don't mean anything to each other?". So much of this film is style and gorgeousity, yet the absence of beginning-middle-end (by no means something that I require in a film) ultimately leaves it heartless. This isn't to slap the writing around too much - the dialogue is excellent, in fact, and the balance and composition of the individual scenes is superb. But that's just not enough when you're telling an audience a story. In the end you just feel empty, spent and unsatisfied - probably not unlike a sex addict, in fact (which may be the point, though I would hope not).
Positives, then. Without wishing to get too film-geeky about things like colour palette (perfect) and production design/costume (exquisite) - things that are not generally 'meant' to be noticed, but are enjoyed subconsciously as part of the movie experience - it's worth talking about the long shots (that's 'long' as in duration, not distance). These things don't always work: the audience intuitively 'knows' to expect short shots, flipping from one viewpoint to another, and if the director is not careful she or he can unwittingly create a jarring experience. The advantage can be to bring something of the stage to the screen; done well, a sustained take allows actors to take the lead creatively, without necessarily compromising the film's, well, filmic qualities.
Sometimes an extended shot can showcase a film-maker's exuberance and talent for composition, as in Scorsese's famous entering-the-nightclub shot in Goodfellas. Less happily, it can result in a two-dimensional stage play with none of cinema's advantages, as Hitchcock found in Rope. Steve McQueen - as you might expect from his previous film Hunger - is a long way from Rope territory; some of the long scenes here work wonderfully, in particular a restaurant scene between Brandon and a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) on a slightly awkward date is a tour-de-force, one of the best individual scenes of recent cinema.
Which brings me onto the performances. Carey Mulligan, after a fairly slight turn in is last year's Drive, is film-thievingly fabulous; her borderline-personality vulcanicity and almost unwittingly manipulativeness is perfectly expressed - we don't need to be told her back-story, nor does her relationship with Brandon need too much explanation; it's all there in the performance. As to Fassbender as Brandon, his performance is typically measured and intense - he has to carry the movie while Mulligan et al. are having all the fun around him, and he succeeds. Of the smaller roles, James Badge Dale as Brandon's boss is solid as a the kind of yuppie douchebag who can dismiss John Coltrane as 'fucking elevator music', and relative newcomer Nicole Beharie deserves particular praise for her compelling, nuanced performance opposite Fassbender.
Perhaps a worthy comparator for Shame would be Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin; with which it shares a kind of sonic-visual invention alongside strong performances and heavy subject matter. However, in Ramsay's film the writer-director seems to have more concern for telling a compelling story (and from source material deemed 'unfilmable', no less) as well as making a gorgeous film. That's not to say there isn't plenty to marvel at in Shame - and of course the writers didn't set out to be deliberately ineffective in their yarn-spinning - but it is ultimately a collection of well-written, wonderfully performed and meticulously directed scenes in search of a proper story - or indeed a film.