REVIEW ROUND-UP: Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ in Venice and Telluride

After Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was wildly adored by critics in Telluride it looks like the second film to drop at a major Fall film festival to almost unanimous praise has arrived. British director Steve McQueen broke onto the scene two years ago as the writer/director of the movie Hunger, about a hunger strike purported by Northern Ireland political prisoners. His follow-up film Shame re-unites him with star Michael Fassbender and is about a sex addict who is forced to be reigned in when his sister moves in with him.

The one thing that almost all critics seem to agree upon is the fact that the film will have a difficult time with distribution. It contains scenes so sexually explicit that it is almost guaranteed an NC-17 rating. The critics also seem to agree that the film is a solid sophomore effort from one of the more imaginative filmmakers working today.

Xan Brooks of The Guardian mentions that the film contains one of the most mesmerizing tracking shots since Touch of Evil. He also indirectly credits Fassbender and Carey Mulligan for much of the film’s emotional truth:

Shame feels less formal, less rooted in the language of the art installation than McQueen’s previous film, Hunger, and is all the more satisfying for that. This is fluid, rigorous, serious cinema; the best kind of adult movie. There are glimmers of American Gigolo to its pristine sheen and echoes of Midnight Cowboy to the scratchy, mutual dependence of the damaged duo at the core. For her big showstopper at a downtown nightclub, Sissy takes the stage to croon her way through a haunting, little-girl-lost rendition of New York, New York, slowing the pace and milking the pathos.

Oliver Lyttleton of The Playlist believes that Shame does not quite reach the levels of innovation of McQueens debut, but still gives the film an A-. He credits McQueen for being very economical with the camera:

There’s no 20-minute super take, but McQueen, like almost no other filmmaker, is confident enough to frame up and let the actors work, and it’s the source of most of the film’s most memorable moments; the dinner date between Brendan and Marianne, Mulligan’s performance, a midnight jog through the streets. Not a single composition or camera movement is wasted, and if anything, it feels like McQueen is even more in command of his craft than he was before, if such a thing is possible.

Andrea Pasquettin of WhatCulture! talks about McQueen’s impeccable talent at allowing the characters to exist on-screen without unnecessary editing, soundtrack, etc.:

McQueen uses long scenes, very methodically slow paced actions that let the audience observe, absorb and think about what is being shown on the screen. There is no escape, we have to face what is happening, we have to deal with it. He uses music in a intelligent way, leaving many scenes with no dialogue but simple music to sustain the emotion of the moment, even though sometimes it looks like he is trying to force it too much into the film. Sometimes silence is gold.

Guy Lodge of In Contention gives Shame one of his highest ratings – 3.5 out of 4 stars. He says the screenplay by Abi Morgan borders on run of the mill, but the attentive direction of McQueen elevates it to something much greater:

Morgan’s views on the human condition, and on single professional self-alienation, aren’t especially revelatory (its portrait of Brandon is a more solemn essay on male ennui issues that fill monthly copies of GQ magazine), but McQueen’s depiction of his narrow, clammy routine is rendered in such crisp, arresting visual and sonic strokes that his plight becomes that much more distinct. This is lifestyle cinema in the most literal, and least romantic, sense of the term.

Gregory Ellwood of HitFix writes about the film from the Telluride Film Festival and highly praises Fassbender’s performance. He contrasts it with his work in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and says that he shines in shame because his sexual frustration is more externalized:

Unlike Fassbender’s role as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (also screened at Telluride), a man who represses himself due to society’s demands at the time, Brandon is a powder keg of sexual energy.  Fassbender demonstrates Brandon’s need to control his addictive desires by depicting him as quiet and intentional in his movements and actions as possible.  That’s not to infer Brandon seems shy, but he’s not the charismatic ladies man one might assume of someone with his compulsions.

Shame will open this Fall (TBA) in the U.S.

Oscar Speculation

I have long been saying that this is Michael Fassbender’s year with four starring roles in feature films and ample opportunity to get recognized. I previously had him ranked at the top of the Best Actor charts for his performance in A Dangerous Method, but now that reviews for both films have surfaced I realize I may have been backing the wrong horse. A nomination for Fassbender seems like a strong possibility right now.

As for the other elements of the film, it seems like it might be too vulgar for the Academy’s tastes. If it is anything like Hunger it’s more Criterion territory than Oscar. However, we may see nominations for Cinematography or Editing as well as Fassbender. Otherwise this film could easily be just a critic’s darling and get ignored by the Academy.

Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups:

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  • Asif Khan

    ok so after these wonderful reviews i can’t wait for this and yes u r right …. he has plenty of opportunity to get recognized by Academy :) he is a good actor, proved it over the years and one of my most favorites.

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