I'm a freelance writer living and loving Melbourne
One of the most poignant lines in Shame, the latest film from critically acclaimed writer/director Steve McQueen comes from Cissy (Carey Mulligan): "we're not bad people we just come from a bad place". This is a voicemail message we hear close to the end of the film. Cissy leaves it for her brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who is a sex addict with an easy charm and quick temper, and the lead in this heartbreaking piece of cinema.
Voicemail messages from Cissy feature throughout the film, particularly in the early scenes. Brandon doesn't pick up and Cissy resorts to increasingly dramatic scenarios to try to force him to answer. He doesn't. She comes to stay anyway.
The brother/sister relationship is a key part of the film, mostly because it gives, not a whole lot, but some back story about Brandon and reveals at different times both his softer and scarier side. A stand-out scene is when Cissy sings the traditionally up-beat New York, New York in a slow and moving rendition that literally brings a tear to Brandon's eye. This well known song has always been about 'I'm gonna make it there' optimism and hope but to hear it sung with a sense of unfulfilled dreams and longing is nothing short of incredibly beautiful.
On the surface, Brandon has it all – good job, nice apartment and plenty of female attention – however deep down this is more about maintaining an image far removed from the other life he leads. It's a life where call-girls, internet porn and kinky city sex dungeons dominate. The delicate balance of his double life is shifted as a result of Cissy's visit.
While Brandon is incapable of intimacy and happily indulges his desires through anonymous sexual encounters, Cissy wears her heart on her sleeve and openly tells her brother how much she needs and wants him to be more a part of her life. Whatever 'bad place' these two come from, which is never revealed and it's a better film because of it; it is quickly shown they have coped with this trauma in very different ways.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan deliver stellar performances. Fassbender gives us a complex portrayal of Brandon that makes you love and hate this character through an understated yet powerful performance. And Mulligan brings the right mix of vulnerability and carefree immaturity to Cissy.
I wasn't surprised to read that Fassbender and Mulligan improvised many of their scenes, particularly the more emotive exchanges where things turn physical. Fassbender has publicly commended his co-star on her fearlessness and the trust they both needed in one another using a more experimental acting process. I think this rapport makes for a very successful on-screen chemistry that adds a brutal honesty to an already strong script that never succumbs to any easy resolutions or heart-felt family moments.
I highly recommend seeing Shame. It's certainly not a film you'll watch over and over again but you'll definitely think about the characters and their stories long after you've left the cinema.