DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen | WRITERS: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan | CAST: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale | UK
Steve McQueen structured Shame as a chronological sequence of relatively few scenes, each playing out essentially in real time and composed of long takes often in closeup. Given that approach to the material, I’d have thought McQueen would pay extraordinarily close attention to what he was expecting his audience to absorb and contemplate. But too much that might be seen as true to the character (Brandon is too busy thinking about sexual release every waking moment to worry about buying clothes that fit, or to know anything about food or wine, or even to have purchased a CD player) is mixed in with what I can only ascribe to McQueen’s own (bad) taste that I’m left with the sinking feeling that I was being too optimistic.
A case in point. McQueen gives over five entire minutes to a closeup of Sissy (Carey Mulligan) singing a song in real time at her new gig, with her brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his boss in the audience. (There are a couple of reaction shots, but the camera is mostly focused on Mulligan’s face.) We know that she’s been a mess in her personal life, but we’re also meant to believe that she’s a true artist; indeed, the setting for her NYC gig is a sophisticated cocktail lounge/nightclub that’s typically the reserve of cabaret artistes. The first tip off that something is amiss is the choice of song, Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York”, which is compounded by Mulligan’s singing it in a hushed voice and at a snail’s pace. Is she doing an homage to Barbra Streisand who famously reworked “Happy Days Are Here Again” into a torch ballad when she was still a saloon singer? But then I listened to Mulligan’s voice and thought maybe Marilyn Monroe’s “That Old Black Magic” number from Bus Stop is what McQueen was after. Mulligan has no voice at all, which hasn’t stopped some great singing artists, true, but her interpretation of “New York, New York” is trite and mawkish. Brandon and his boss like it, sure, but Brandon can’t find a pair of pants or even a sweater that fit, and his boss is a vulgarian with no taste anyway, but would a deluxe Manhattan cocktail lounge engage a singer quite this amateurish? Of course not, but Steve McQueen doesn’t see it that way, which means that I have absolutely no way of knowing whether what I think are interesting touches that point to character defects and deficits might actually not be that at all. Why, in 2011, is Brandon playing Glenn Gould’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations on vinyl? It’s been continuously in print on CD since CDs were first available for sale to the public 30 years ago.
The acting in general is mediocre with one painfully bad improvised scene between Fassbender and Mulligan that should never have left the editing room floor. It’s interesting but ultimately silly that fleeting glimpses of a penis are still enough to get an NC-17 rating slapped on a movie.