Thoughts and Analysis of ‘Shame’ by Steve McQueen


It’s always a refreshing experience for a film fanatic to watch a film that they know very little about and find that it is a diamond in the rough. It is my pleasure to say that I experienced this just last week when I sat down to watch Steve McQueen’s 2011 masterpiece, Shame, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. For those who don’t know the film is basically about a man who lives alone and enjoys a successful life at work, but then in his spare time he partakes in substance abuse and is sex addict. His world is changed when his sister comes to stay with him for the foreseeable future, causing his life to be altered to suit the new context. My mind was completely open and I didn’t know what to expect of the film, which allowed this hidden gem just enough time to creep in and take me completely by surprise. It is fantastic.

It’s odd because the film is one I could only describe as problematic. It deals with subject matter that is dark and it reveals a soul behind the film that is black, but it approaches different problems with the utmost sincerity, without ever idealising them. It reminded me to an extent of the period of film in the seventies and eighties in which cinema became problematic, with films like I Spit on Your Grave, Straw Dogs and even A Nightmare on Elm Street at the helm of this time period. They all dealt with complex issues based on the human mind and the human body. They focused heavily upon character and the way the human body is treated, and in some cases destroyed or defiled. That is what Shame feels like. It is a problematic piece of complex cinema that feels as though you are crawling through sewage, but you don’t necessarily mind.

The best thing about the film is that, like many other good films, it is extremely thought-provoking. The sign of a good film is that it makes you think; you become so engaged in this fictitious world that you are intrigued and filled with questions and thoughts. One of the original purposes of cinema, like literature before it, was to tell a story, so it is refreshing to still see films that can capture an audience like that without being real. In this case also the film is one that focuses heavily on the idea of language and how as humans we can use language for an all manner of different purposes. I really like films that focus on humans and language because it takes skill in writing and presents just how much delicate screenplay writing pays off.

The film was actually so thought-provoking I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in a very long time; I actually had a pad and pen in front of me so I could be making notes. It sounds like something a professional film critic would either hate or encourage, but it was honestly the only way for me to capture the various thoughts and feelings that spontaneously burst in to my head. It was a rather interesting experience for me, so what I have decided to do is to transfer all of my hand written notes I made whilst watching the film in to a blog post, just to see what people make of them. I have spoken spoilerese to the best of my ability to ensure the film isn’t ruined for those who haven’t seen it.

So it is without further ado I present to you the original purpose of this post: my thoughts and analysis of Shame by Steve McQueen.

The screenplay takes time to become present – for the first eight minutes of the film we are only presented with a couple of words. Some people lose interest when a film does not have instant talking but if you think about it some of the best films take time to develop their screenplay. Wall-e famously had one character for the opening section of the film, and even There Will Be Blood took near enough nineteen minutes before introducing screenplay to the audience. Taking time is not a bad thing.

Fassbender’s character is made to be successful with women by not talking, whereas his friend talks too much and that is evidently his flaw – it’s almost a mockery of men who approach women in bars and try to smooth talk them, McQueen and Morgan clearly cared about the screenplay for this film and how is presents men and women. It suggests a connection between two people has to come naturally, it cannot possibly be forced to exist.

Fassbender is very happy with freedom and no one in particular, whereas his sister has someone she loves and yet she is unhappy – the film shows how the free spirit who is not tied down is happy with their life, but n the opposite side of the coin we see his sister who is fixated upon one person, which hurts her all too easily.

The cinematography is complex through fragmentation – it shows the mundane aspects of everyday life like train journeys, and then the physical nature of sexual activity without shying away from being too explicit. It only makes it more realistic by focusing on the details to make it more relatable for members of the audience.

Nudity – it is almost as if McQueen wants to show every single aspect of the characters. Not just the nurture side that has been socialised by external factors; the natural side is integral to his characters. The film is about the shaming of the body, so we have to see all of it in order for McQueen to put his ideas across. He is not afraid to show the human body in its entirety.

McQueen was previously an artist, which is shown through his films – it is as if McQueen cares about every single shot that is shown on screen, each one has to be a different piece of art. Even with 12 Years A Slave recently some shots of the natural environment were beautiful with an artistic feel to them. With Shame it’s shots of the city which shows how McQueen believes manmade environments can be equally beautiful. This in turn reflects how Fassbender’s character believes his manmade life is the ideal.

It’s a British film but it could be a critique of American lifestyles? – it’s a little farfetched but it almost feels as though McQueen is judging the lifestyle that the main character has by showing the inevitable destruction through his own actions and addictions, That’s what the film is about, he is slowly destroying himself because ultimately he is unhappy.

The themes presented are very different – it challenges the overused value of family by showing the opposite side that is unhappy. It’s not just childish sibling rivalry or just annoying each other, it is about recognising characteristics that are almost repellent to the other person. In the case of this film instead of showing how siblings have grown up together and are firm friends we are presented with siblings that have grown apart and never attempted to rebuild the bridge between them. Also there is a lack of poetic justice through showing just how dysfunctional the family is – it is fully dysfunctional, but does that make it more realistic? do other films idealise the happy family at the cost of neglecting how harsh life really is?

Isolation is a theme that’s presented, but the two sides of it are shown – Fassbender idealises isolation and is happy with it, whereas Mulligan’s character fears it. One of them is running away from isolation but the other one is running towards it. With Fassbender we are shown someone who is happy through isolation and not needing anybody else to be a constant presence, whereas Mulligan’s character could see destruction through isolation because she needs company.

The use of white in the colour scheme – this not only contrasts Fassbender’s darker personality (much like with Christian Bale in American Psycho) but it contrasts with the colour of blood just to show the true impact the sister has on his life.

Clinging to youth leads to the destruction of the mind and body, but also the soul – The film shows how Fassbender is clinging to his youth and engaging in all of the activities you would expect somebody young and off the rails to partake in, like the drugs and the sex addiction. This only increases and increases until inevitably it begins to destroy him. Because he is failing to move on from this young style of living and to move on to maturity it begins to break down his character in an all manner of different ways. We not only see his mind wither but also his body, he is broken down towards the end of the film, which adds real weight to it.

So there you have it, my notes that were made during the film. I have added to them and glossed them up a little bit just to make them more reader friendly for everyone, but if you make it to the end of this entry then you’ll see I’ve added pictures of the original notes for those interested.

In summary I would recommend the film, I really would, it was a challenging and moving experience for me but it is really well written and terrifically shot so it is both a visual feast and an emotional journey. It isn’t for the faint hearted, and there is in fact a sequence towards the end that did cause some controversy in terms of political correctness and the message it sends out, so I would say be cautious of it. I personally really liked the film and I think it is well worth a watch, but you will need to watch it with an open mind and a strong heart. McQueen, in my mind, is proving himself to be a legend among modern film makers, setting up a legacy that will echo on.

As always if anyone has any thoughts they would like to share then please do not hesitate to leave a comment. I am open minded and I welcome any criticism, but I am certainly curious to see what other people made of this film. I promise to respond to any comments posted in due course.

Until the next time I shall leave you with my favourite quote from the film, taken from an argument between Fassbender and Mulligan:

“You’re always sorry…try doing something. Actions count, not words”

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts and Analysis of ‘Shame’ by Steve McQueen

  1. Great write-up. I really loved this film after first viewing, and I feel like it might make into my top films of all time when I get around to seeing it for a second time.

    • It’s one of those films I want to watch again, but I’m going to leave it a little while and then approach it again. I’m glad someone else loved it as much as I did after the first viewing.

      • Yeah, I’m in the same boat! I almost want to forget about it a little more so that the emotions will be fresh when I revisit it.

      • I’m just glad I watched it after watching ’12 Years a Slave’ because I was worried McQueen might have been a bit of a one trick pony. I liked the surprise of ‘Shame’ being as brilliant as it was. I need to move on to ‘Hunger’ next.

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