PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
Category: III

Compared with his sparser and more visual feature film debut - Hunger, the 2008 movie about Provisional Irish Republican Army operative Bobby Sands' fatal hunger strike inside the notorious Maze Prison in 1981 - Steve McQueen delivers a film that is heavier on dialogue. But only just.

Shame revolves around a high-flying New Yorker's struggle with his near-pathological craving for sex. But the film's most powerful moment involves neither an explosive verbal exchange nor an intense display of unfettered carnal desire - rather, it's a close-up of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the fragile younger sister of the film's protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender, above), rendering a haunting version of New York, New York stripped of its cheery, campy overtones.

Just as this rendition reveals the sad yearning central to the lyrics, it also lays bare what lies beneath Brandon's aloof and orderly veneer.

In a fascinating film thriving on its seen but largely unspoken hints about emotional turmoil manifesting in bodily self-harm, McQueen's choice of song is key to understanding the essence of Shame.

Just as the director has the Liza Minelli/Sinatra number pared down to the extent of having its euphoria completely drained away, he also fashions Brandon's ceaseless sexual activities to come across as anything but satisfying. They are either depicted as mechanical, manically obsessive or, towards the film's end, maddening, when brutal sex is oddly juxtaposed with soaring classical music.

Through such depictions, McQueen negates possible misconceptions about both sex addiction and his film about the condition.

Sissy, possibly escaping a relationship breakdown in Los Angeles, crash-lands into Brandon's neat and compartmentalised life. Fassbender and Mulligan deliver intense performances that reveal the many layers of their tortured characters.

Fassbender's nuanced portrayal of Brandon's insecurity is impressive as he displays his usually self-assured character's nervousness as he dates his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie).

But it's also McQueen's eye for detail - both in terms of personality traits and production design - that provide a platform for the actors to shine.

There is the deft contrasting of Brandon's detachment with the antics of his low-grade Lothario of a boss (James Badge Dale), for example, or the way New York comes across as clouded in a perennial gloomy bluish tone.

Frequently unleashing Brandon as a lone particle overwhelmed by the city's looming artificial landscape - when he's peering up at glass-and-steel skyscrapers revealing its innards of copulating residents, or a skyline that is forbiddingly alienating to his sealed-off soul - McQueen succeeds in bringing forth his lead character's anguished solitude without ever resorting to melodramatic histrionics to do it.

Shame opens today