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Blu-ray Review: Shame (2011)

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The Film

I have a feeling Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature, Shame, may not age too well. While the Hunger director’s sex addiction drama resonated with me on first viewing, my return trip looking at the Blu-ray brought its issues more clearly to the surface.

ShameI’m not sure I agree with the prevailing criticism that McQueen is too mannered a director, composing ornate, hermetically sealed shots that do more to fetishize what’s in the frame than reveal anything insightful about it. Debut film Hunger might be guiltier of this with its precisely framed, delicate compositions of horrific Maze Prison conditions, but I was generally moved and entranced by that film all the same. (Admittedly, I haven’t seen it a second time yet.)

The visual strategy is often similar in Shame, set up immediately with an opening shot of perfectly rumpled sea glass-colored bed sheets. Nonetheless, it’s not McQueen’s highly affected mise en scène that hurts the film (although one could certainly argue it does, draining any passion away from the central story) but the screenplay by Abi Morgan and McQueen, which is too skeletal or, alternatively, too focused on extraneous detail.

The script kind of splits the middle in terms of whether it will be a minimalistic tone poem or a backstory-rich character piece, and it doesn’t quite work as either as a result. Michael Fassbender’s well-off Manhattan playboy Brandon is introduced with appropriate brevity and the arrival of train wreck sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) lets us fill in the blanks on their tumultuous past. But scenes detailing Brandon’s professional life and his relationship with douchey boss David (James Badge Dale) are narrative deadweight.

Nevertheless, the film often works, much of which is thanks to the two leads. Fassbender, in a buzzy end-of-year role that failed to garner as much awards attention as anticipated, is fantastic yet again, convincingly building a charming veneer that vanishes to reveal single-minded determination in any private moment. Mulligan might be even better, as she effectively externalizes Sissy’s uncouth tendencies while internalizing a rich interior world of hurt and betrayal.

McQueen’s career is going places. Whatever one’s issues with Shame or Hunger, the ambition in both is admirable, and his visual patience is often striking, as in Shame’s best scene, a single long take, slowly pushing in on Brandon’s attempt at normalcy in a dinner date with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). Perhaps not coincidentally, this best scene is one of the film’s few leavened with any humor at all — pervasive self-seriousness is not my main problem with Shame, but a lighter touch around the edges might not have hurt.

The Blu-ray Disc

Presented in 1080p high definition in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Shame receives a faithful high-def transfer that’s just a bit flat and soft at points. Colors are true and excessive digital tampering is not a concern, but don’t expect a tack sharp image much of the time, even in close-ups. This slight softness does jibe with the intended look of the film, although I expected a little more pop here. Still, the transfer is quite clean and consistent throughout.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is crystal clear and offers solid, immersive use of the surrounds when called for. Dialogue is clean from the fronts and the film’s Glenn Gould piano pieces are wonderfully crisp.

Special Features

It might look like a nice line-up on the packaging, but the extras here are aggressively shallow, whittled down into bite-size EPK nuggets from interviews that probably had a lot more to offer. Four featurettes are all about three minutes each and offer brief looks at Fassbender’s performance and character, McQueen’s directing, the story and the budding partnership between Fassbender and McQueen. Also included is a slightly longer piece from Fox Movie Channel about Fassbender.

The package also includes a DVD/digital copy disc — the only way to get a DVD of the film, as a standalone release is not available.

The Bottom Line

Worth seeing if for nothing else than the excellent performances, but one hopes McQueen has got a greater film in him yet.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.