UK (2012) Dir. Steve McQueen

Successful and single 30-something executive Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has it all yet seems to avoid it to his colleagues. But in his private life Brandon has a voracious and often depraved sex addiction which he stimulates and indulges with one night stands, pornography and other means. All this comes to a sudden standstill when Brandon’s club singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives out of the blue and plans on staying for an indefinite period, forcing Brandon to suppress his urges while trying to hold his crumbling sister up.

There is an argument to be made that the title for this film is ironic and should be called Shameless since its depiction of sexual addiction and Brandon’s means of satisfying it are among the most graphic and open ever seen in mainstream film. Nothing is hidden away or held back and while this might shock and appal some it is not done to shock or titillate. Writers Steve McQueen (no relation) and Abi Morgan expose (pardon the word choice) and confront this problem head on using Sissy’s lovelife as the mirror to which Brandon is forced to hold up to himself.

The two siblings are essentially Yin and Yang with Brandon the introverted one and Sissy the extrovert. Their background is clearly a troubled one which is never revealed resulting in a relationship which is superficially unconventional. We meet Sissy when Brandon returns home to find someone in the shower and confronts his intruder with a baseball bat. Of course it is Sissy yet she thinks nothing of standing naked in front of her brother (yes Carey Mulligan gets naked for all you horndogs reading).

Once things have calmed down she is very tactile with Brandon and while he shrugs her off, he reluctantly lets her stay. Brandon takes his married but philandering boss David (James Badge Dale) to watch Sissy perform and true to form, slick David hits on Sissy. The inevitable happens which drives Brandon not just out of his head but out of his flat, acting as the first catalyst for Brandon to confront his attitudes and feelings towards sex. When he tries to settle down and do it “properly” by dating a work colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) playing nice is unsuccessful so it’s back to the hookers for Brandon. Meanwhile his pious attitude towards Sissy’s capricious behaviour forces a huge row in which some home truths are finally aired.

While the adjective “powerful” gets thrown out a lot to describe this type of film, it is certainly befitting this stark and upfront outing. Its pin sharp photography and slick veneer may suggest mainstream and glossy but the reality is the opposite. This film is very bare on the production front with barely any background music or flashy editing and camera effects as befitting a gritty and unflattering subject.

Director McQueen pulls no punches so the easily offended should avoid this while others find themselves dragged into a seedy and seemingly hidden world in which language and jargon not normally used outside of specific genres get an airing. Care is also taken to not pass judgement on either sibling, no matter how depraved or immoral their lifestyles and attitudes may be (David on the other hand is a total jerk). While sympathy is hard to muster for either main character Sissy comes closest towards the end of the film but with so much information left in the dark it’s easy to see why Brandon is so angry with her.

McQueen has made a very uncompromising film and his choice of cast may surprise considering the subject matter but both leads throw themselves both physically and emotionally into their roles. Carey Mulligan is likely to be the biggest surprise for many since she has engendered something of an “English rose” reputation after her breakthrough role in An Education. Her playing of the vulgar, damaged, needy Sissy is as far removed from an English Rose as you can get and she pulls off a mean American accent and can sing too. Fassbender starts off portraying Brandon as a watered down version Christian Bale in American Psycho but his decline into a confused wreck is compelling and nuanced. However of all the images I want to see in HD, a naked Fassbender taking a leak isn’t one of them!

With Shame we have a film that challenges not just the viewer but the conventions of modern mainstream cinema without actually being that mainstream. It has a confrontational edge to it which will polarise viewers and is certainly not for the casual film fan. If you like cinema with courage and conviction then give this a go.