A powerful portrait of self loathing, but overly simplistic characters let down this study of sex addiction
Verdict: It is
Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the anti-hero of Steve McQueen’s bleak study of male promiscuity, Shame, is a sex addict.
Although he holds down an office job, his life in New York revolves around porn, prostitutes, pick-ups and self-abuse.
He has no appetite for commitment, and the only time anyone comes close to making him care about them personally – that’s a fellow office worker, nicely played by Nicole Beharie – he is unable to perform sexually.
Shame: Carey Mulligan plays Brandon's sister Sissy, who is as emotionally needy as he is carnally incontinent
At one point, he even experiments with gay sex, but that seems to give him no greater fulfilment than the heterosexual kind.
Writer-director McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan are fashionably non-judgmental. There is nothing about why Brandon is a sex addict, or whether he has harmed others with his addiction.
Nor is there a single mention of sexual disease – an odd omission in a city that has been at the centre of the Aids epidemic.
His one challenge comes in the form of his singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who stays on his sofa while she has a brief cabaret engagement in Manhattan. But she is as emotionally needy as he is carnally incontinent, with a history of failed relationships and suicide attempts.
It is clear from the slow, tentative way she sings New York, New York that she’s no great singer and lacks self-assurance. Something in these siblings’ background has made them dysfunctional, but we never know what it is.
Anti-hero: Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, the lead in this bleak study of male promiscuity
There is a hint of incest when she comes to his bed at night and he screams at her to leave; but that’s not explored. Will Brandon clean up his act Will Sissy become less of a wreck It’s impossible to know, and just as hard to care.
Though both characters show us their bodies, we’re never allowed to see inside their minds. Neither attempts to confront their own behaviour, or is made to do so by a third party. The entire film is, to that extent, undramatic.
Fassbender does give a powerful portrait of predatory sex appeal and self-loathing, which is why he won best actor at the Venice Film Festival.
Mulligan is less aptly cast; there is something pert and self-possessed about her that clashes with the messiness of Sissy. I didn’t quite believe in her, or swallow the idea she is Brandon’s sister. They’re too unalike.
The film has one great sequence early on, where Brandon attempts to seduce a woman on the New York subway merely by looking at her. It’s an object lesson in how to build a scene without dialogue, and a viable short film in itself.
When words come into play, however, the screenplay descends into banalities and obscenities. It presents us with simplistic characters who never deepen.
The message of the film is – however unintentionally – conservative. It is clear from beginning to end that Brandon gains little pleasure from his addiction.
I’ve seen this film described as ‘important’, but there’s nothing original about exposing the emptiness of promiscuity.
While Shame has style to spare, it isn’t as well-written, entertaining or socially aware as it pretends to be. Which is, indeed, a shame.
Churchill it ain't! An ungripping alien invasion it is
THE DARKEST HOUR (15)
Verdict: Flee these aliens
The title may be borrowed from Winston Churchill, but that’s the only surprise element of this astonishingly ungripping alien invasion movie, shot in murky, pointless 3D, in which various young people try to survive an alien invasion.
The tedious leading characters, a pair of internet entrepreneurs played by Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella, are cardboard cut-outs of a rebel and a nerd. The girls they try to save (Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor) are even less sharply characterised. One’s a brunette, the other’s a blonde; that’s all there is to say.
The leading characters – a pair of internet entrepreneurs played by Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella – are cardboard cut-outs of a rebel and a nerd
The one interesting character is the scheming Swede (Joel Kinnaman), who swindles the lads out of their big idea and, unsurprisingly, meets a nasty end.
Director Chris Gorak might have made something of the culture clash between his young American tourists and the cut-throat Russia where they find themselves trying to survive, but that is beyond him and his scriptwriters.
Deserted Moscow locations and a few impressive scenic tableaux — especially an airliner that’s crashed into a mall — never compensate for the lack of human interest.
Just as fatally, the aliens are some of the least scary monsters in history.