That's the state of mind I was in when I went to see Shame, I was excited and thought that I was in for something special. My wife on the other hand knew nothing about the film and the people behind it apart from knowing what Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan look like, she's not as much of a film fan as I am so I thought we would get two very different views on it, so we settled down to what I thought was set to be a strong and stylish film.
Shame is billed as an examination of the nature of need, how we live our lives and the experiences that shape us, and I think this is where it fails for me as it never examines anything in any more detail than the outside sheen. The story never really gets inside what's going on or what's in these characters minds apart from perhaps one scene. For the rest of the film we follow Brandon, finding out in sometimes lengthy scenes, that he has a growing problem, can't connect emotionally with anyone and has issues with his sister, issues we hardly even touch on, and a problem at the core of both of their lives that we only ever see the symptoms of.
So despite offering us so much of interest to investigate and presenting so many interesting characters and complex relationships and motivations, we just don't look into them, and yes it is a shame.
Yet Shame is extremely stylishly filmed and does deliver some strong scenes and strong performances despite these shortcomings. As much as I wanted to love it for these reasons and because of the actors involved, it was quite a struggle to get connected to the characters and relate to anything in their stories. This caused a big problem for certain scenes where you were meant to actually feel something with or for the characters, and you just didn't, you just didn't care, even during the most dramatic character sequences.
Shame does open very well. I really enjoyed the pacing at the beginning and the lack of dialogue from Brandon, Michael Fassbender's character, which goes on for a surprising amount of time without detrimental effect on the film or anything but a positive building of emotion. The flirting in the subway and the replaying of the tedium of his repetitive life - waking up, his moments of self reflection, the opening of the blinds and his morning routine of listening to his messages as he takes a shower. This opening really lived up to my expectations, as did some of the scenes that followed; they made me think that we were in for a strong film.
However it was from here it started to slip, and in one of the most notable ways was the pacing. The scene with Carey Mulligan's character singing the New York number was almost painful at points, while I loved her voice and Michael Fassbender's performance is fantastic during these moments, the song dragged each word and syllable out, and it worked to begin with soon I was just wishing the scene would end and move on with the story. That was a theme that followed throughout the film and hit me often, the night-time running scene was another and there were more to come.
It wasn't all like this though there were a couple of stronger scenes such as the first morning with Brandon and his sister standing waiting on the subway, or the evolution of the first date. This is a particularly interesting scene as Brandon struggles with the way he should be for this new woman who he may well care more about than we, or he, thinks. We watch how he stumbles over what to say or to do and almost sabotages the entire date. It's the way that the relationship between the two characters develops and changes, interacting with each other and everything that is around them, it feels much like a real date.
Yet the problems over shadow these stronger moments, even during the same scene. During the date it's unclear whether he's actually trying to push her away or if he is trying to fight his own urges and attempt something of the beginnings of a normal relationship with her. There are no indications of the motivations apart from three moments each of which could take you in a different direction if you thought about them, and they do. Even after the date you're still unclear as to what the reasoning and motivations were behind Brandon's actions. This could have worked if this were the only uncertainty or one of the few, the problem is the entire film is like this where we just have no idea what is under the surface or why.
For me this is the largest failing of the film because there was no examination of anything that was happening, it just happened, and because there was no real connection with the characters it was hard to even attempt to understand some of the decisions they made. I think of some key emotional scenes such as where he really does start his spiral out of control from the bar; the scene of the start of his emotional crumble with the woman he dated in the hotel room, or his emotional breakdown shown in the orgy scene where his grimace of sexual activity turns into something more negative; where the train is untimely stopped or when he races back to his apartment; the reveal moment at the end of the film, or the scene after the hospital where he falls apart right in front of the camera for the penultimate sequence. For all of these moments I felt I should have been feeling more than I did feeling something even, but I didn't. To be totally honest I didn't care for the characters one bit, and that really hurt the film.
The ending reflected the way I felt about the entire film, some fantastic moments and some poor moments. Without spoiling anything, as I believe I've never done in a Filmstalker review, the film had been gently building up a strong tension that the train sequence released with a sudden shock which then pre-empted and spoiled the tension for the scenes which follow it. Before this the tension was building well throughout the sequences where we see Brandon totally out of control, but rather than a false start to release a little and rebuild from, I found all the tension was released at the train sequence, and because I wasn't engaged enough by the story or connected to the characters, come the second surprise there was nothing left for me to feel for them, and what followed was me merely watching Fassbender's actions with more detail than was needed.
That's an interesting point to note as well, instead of being shocked at this scene or being moved by it, I was analysing it as I was watching an actor's performance in a scene in a film. It highlights how little I was engaged by the story or had invested in the characters.
Follow that with the scene where Brandon walks towards the camera and breaks down which shows another strong moment from Fassbender but in a scene that all I could do was wonder why it was there. For some reason it felt as though it was totally out of place from the rest of the film and so deliberately out of place.
Then the final scene on the subway was back to some of the most powerful moments of the film, the power of the characters flirting on the subway and the excellent subtlety of Fassbender's performance was foremost with an equally subtle direction revealing moments of the story and characters through the events without words. This ending, along with the opening sequences, are some of the best moments of the film.
Shame offered a lot for the audience but never delivered. It promises an examination of the characters and their relationships but holds so much back we don't get under the skin of their motivations or the instigating incidents behind the stories we see in the film, and here I'm mainly thinking about the relationship between the lead character and his sister, you know a relationship that just might be one of the most important of the story identifying why the lead character is the way he is and why he treats his sister so.
I felt the film suffered from merely looking from the outside and not letting the audience under the skin of the characters or the story. If it had then we might have connected with the lead and understood something about him and his sister, or offered some of that examination that we were promised.
There are some excellent scenes in the film, but I could count them on one hand, and while the performance of Michael Fassbender is superb, because we're not connected with the story or the characters it's difficult to see more than an actor delivering his performance in a few emotionally strong scenes.
I think that critics and the more art house fans will find a lot more in this film than simply fans of film, as the different opinions between my wife and I showed, she thought it was rubbish while I found some redeeming features through it. Shame does demand need a different set of requirements than I or my wife have for a film in order to walk away with a positive experience.