Don't let the NC-17 rating scare you off -- Shame is one of 2011's very best movies.
If you've ever wondered what a modern-day Don Draper might look like, chances are that he'd bear a strong resemblance to Brandon Sullivan, the central figure in British director Steve McQueen's engrossing sophomore feature, Shame. Like Don, Brandon (who is played by Michael Fassbender, the only actor working right now who might be better-looking than Jon Hamm) is a successful, well-off New York professional that guys want to hang with and girls want to be with. He's the kind of guy that will gladly act as a wingman for a buddy, but ends up going home with the gal when his pal flames out. Also, just as Don (in Season 1 anyway) embodied what every man of his era was meant to aspire to -- a large house in the suburbs, a gorgeous wife, a couple of kids and a few lovers on the side -- so too does Brandon seem to represent the epitome of the contemporary single guy, from his straight-outta-GQ fashion sense to his nondescript white-collar job to his well-appointed bachelor pad located in a nice high-rise in Manhattan's mid-30s.
And here's the final connection between the two men: despite having everything they're supposed to want, both Don and Brandon feel profoundly empty inside and are actively looking for ways to fill that hole in their respective souls. But where Don finds solace in his work and his relationships with the various women in his life that aren't his (now ex) wife, Brandon is unable to forge a strong human connection with anyone, particularly of the opposite sex. His self-imposed detachment from the world is such that he prefers the company of prostitutes, one-night stands and virtual and video masturbatory objects to a woman that's interested in a real relationship. One of the movie's key scenes finds Brandon whisking away one of his co-workers -- a knockout named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), with whom he previously had a promising first date -- for some afternoon delight at a downtown hotel. But because he has actual feelings for her and she for him, he can't perform. Rejected, she leaves and he promptly orders up a call girl to prove to himself that his equipment still works. Much of the advance press for Shame has referred to Brandon as a sex addict, but based on situations like this, it might be more accurate to describe him as a romance-averse agoraphobe.
The yin to Brandon's yang is his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who is as outgoing and emotional as Brandon is reclusive and cold. A nomadic singer whose current address is wherever the gigs are, Sissy moves into her brother's apartment on her own invitation after booking a few New York-area performances. Her general presence unnerves him and upsets his monastic routine, particularly when she enjoys a liaison with his boss David (James Badge Dale) in Brandon's bed and accidentally stumbles upon his favorite online sex site. Those intrusions, coupled with his botched relationship with Marianne, push him to the breaking point. Leaving his extensive collection of pornography curbside, Brandon heads off into the New York night, deliberately looking for trouble and finding it, treating the physical punishment he endures with almost religious reverence.
McQueen's first film, Hunger -- which depicted a real-life hunger strike by IRA prisoners in a British prison in the early '80s -- was also about a man (played by Fassbender again) that subjected his body to extreme abuse, albeit in the service of nobler ideals than Brandon has here. But Shame is overall a richer, more psychologically complex character portrait than its predecessor. The performances are terrific across the board, as Fassbender, Mulligan and Beharie bare their souls (and their bodies -- the film earns its NC-17 rating in the first ten minutes, when Fassbender strolls naked through the frame, literally letting it all hang out) for McQueen's camera. (While Dale keeps his clothes on, he delivers an equally strong turn. Had his performance on Rubicon been this dynamic and interesting, that show may have lasted longer than a single season.) As in Hunger, the director makes striking use of long takes, allowing shots to linger and never rushing the actors through the scene. The film's standout set-piece is Marianne and Brandon's first date, where the two have a lengthy discussion over dinner about their vastly different views on love and she realizes -- long before he does -- that they have no future together. As long as he's able to continue producing piercing, absorbing films like this, McQueen's future as a filmmaker is very bright indeed.
Ralph Fiennes has plenty of experience performing Shakespeare, but he doesn't have much of a background directing Shakespeare... on film, at least. His greenness shows in Coriolanus, a contemporary update of the Bard's 17th-century play that Fiennes directs and stars in as the titular Roman warrior, who, over the course of the story, goes from war hero to potential political leader to betrayed outcast to revenge-minded traitor. When he first meet him, he's simply known as Caius Martius, one of Rome's top generals and a sworn enemy of Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the burly commander of the Volscian army that regularly attempts to breach the city's walls. Confronting each other once again, Caius all but batters Tullus into submission and watches him be dragged away to safety by his weary soldiers.
Greeted with a hero's welcome upon returning home, Caius is encouraged by his ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and savvy politician Menenius (Brian Cox) to run for the position of consul. But the general -- newly-christened as Coriolanus -- is defeated by his own pride and the scheming of two other political operatives and exiled from Rome, leaving behind his wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and young son. Forced to wander the wilderness, Coriolanus makes his way to the homestead of his arch-nemesis and volunteers to join his army. The combined might of these two battle-hardened warriors quickly overwhelms the Roman troops and threatens to bring the city to its knees... unless Coriolanus' dear mother can convince her son to stay his hand.
Transported to the present day (although an exact year is never specified), the film version of Coriolanus appropriates imagery that viewers will recognize from the nightly news. Early scenes of rioting protestors storming the streets of Rome can't help but bring to mind the current Occupy movement, while the battle scenes are shot using the same guerilla-style techniques one often sees in on-the-ground footage from the Iraq War, as well as recent films like The Hurt Locker and Green Zone. Choreographing that kind of organized chaos requires more finesse than Fiennes possesses, though. The movie is inelegantly edited, with the action sequences unfolding in a wild jumble of shots that's often difficult to follow. Even the scenes that happen far away from the battlefield have a ragged, rushed feel to them, as if Fiennes didn't have the time (or the money) to really think about where he wanted to put the camera. Getting a contemporary audience to properly appreciate Shakespeare can be difficult enough -- bad filmmaking is just going to give them further excuse to seek out something like New Year's Eve instead.
Fortunately, the performances are strong enough to mostly make up for Fiennes' directorial inexperience. Redgrave hold court in grand fashion as one of the most bad-ass moms in the history of stage and screen, while Butler shows that he actually can act when he wants to. And Fiennes himself is magnetic, stalking through the movie with his post-Voldemort chrome dome and a perpetual snarl on his face. Listening to the actors' delivery, the power of Shakespeare's words comes through loud and clear from across the centuries. It's Fiennes' images that fall flat.
Is Shame the Black Swan of 2011? Find out.
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