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'Shame' can take pride in its performances, critics say

December 2, 2011 |  3:33 pm

Michael Fassbender in Shame
Much ink has been spilled over the rare NC-17 rating of the new drama "Shame," which stars Michael Fassbender ("A Dangerous Method," "X-Men: First Class") as a solitary sex addict whose life is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of his troubled sister, played by Cary Mulligan ("Drive"). After earning praise and sparking debate on the festival circuit, "Shame" opens in select theaters Friday, and so far movie critics are calling it a compelling, if difficult film with powerful performances.

The Times' Kenneth Turan calls "Shame" "a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide." He commends Fassbender, who brings "commanding magnetism and intensity"; Mulligan, who delivers an unflinching performance; and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose minimalist styling complements British director Steve McQueen's vision. Though Turan finds some plot elements unclear or contrived, these are "minor quibbles." In the end, Turan writes, "'Shame' is "difficult to watch but even harder to turn away from."

Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern is struck byhow McQueen and Fassbender manage to keep the audience connected to the film's protagonist, Brandon, "even though he's disconnected from the world around him, and especially from himself." Like Turan, Morgenstern has quibbles but comes away impressed: "Much of the film is banal or pretentious, or both — vacuous vignettes about emptiness. Occasionally, though, those vignettes burst into life and burn with consuming fire."

Though the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday deems "Shame" both "joyless" and "strangely un-sexy,"neither is meant as a condemnation. The film "burrows into one's consciousness and stays there," and the value of its dark journey "depends on the viewer's tolerance for movies that offer no grand narrative or explicit meaning and instead simply provide a snapshot character study for audiences to ponder on their own." Like most critics, Hornaday applauds Fassbender ("not just watchable but unforgettable") and Mulligan, who delivers "one of the film's most astonishing set pieces."

USA Today's Claudia Puig says the film is "unremittingly bleak"and "more provocative than revelatory." But, she adds, it "is worth seeing primarily for Michael Fassbender's mesmerizing performance." Fassbender's character is "a fascinating contradiction," a man who is obsessed with the sordid while projecting a facade of elegance. But he is also something of a cipher, and questions of just who he is and why ultimately go unanswered.

Mark Jenkins, of NPR, also finds the film opaque. "Shame" doesn't delve into Brandon and his sister's dark past, and for Jenkins, it fails to flesh them out in the present. Jenkins does, however, praise the lead performances: "If it's ultimately disappointing, 'Shame' is still a powerful experience, largely because of Fassbender and Mulligan. Portraying characters at opposite ends of the emotional scale, each is fearless and pitch-perfect."

"Shame" clearly isn't the sort of film to top the box office, but if the strength of Fassbender's and Mulligan's performances can outshine the film's dark aura and taboo rating, it will have succeeded on its own terms.



'Shame' director surprised by controversy

Fox Searchlight handles NC-17 rated 'Shame' with care

'Shame': Michael Fassbender's chameleon power [Video]

— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Michael Fassbender in "Shame." Credit: Abbot Genser / Fox Searchlight Pictures

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