Before he met conceptual artist Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender was a young actor on the rise who had made his mark on TV and was beginning to make an impact on the big screen. Fassbender’s portrayal of Bobby Sands in the director’s debut feature Hunger (2008) altered the landscape for both men. The Irish actor hoovered up awards for his searing portrayal of the 1981 hunger striker and found himself atop the wish-list of most top casting directors.

It was only a matter of time before both Fassbender and McQueen would team up again and it was always likely to be something a little bit special. Shame is the story of a sex addict in New York coming to terms with his addictions while dealing with the unexpected arrival of his wayward and no less self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan). It’s an uncompromising topic and Fassbender delivers a ferocious performance in a role that requires a headline-grabbing amount of nudity (what’s his mammy in Killarney going to say!).

More importantly for Fassbender’s portrayal and indeed for the narrative punch of the story, it requires a great deal of emotional nudity as so much of the character’s emotional turmoil is bubbling beneath the surface, only manifesting itself through Fassbender’s eyes and in his general expression. It’s a remarkable performance which should keep Fassbender in the running for every gong going in 2012. In a movie filled with memorable scenes, check out the sequence in the night club where Fassbender grows increasingly agitated at his sister croons a song (New York, New York) that hints at their uncomfortable back-story (which McQueen, tellingly, never chooses to reveal).

If Fassbender is at the heart of the movie as he trawls through New York’s nighttown and finds himself in ever decreasing circles of torment, Mulligan also throws herself into her role and consolidates her growing reputation as one of the best young actors in the business.

On the directorial front, McQueen proves that his debut feature was no flash in the pan as he meticulously frames his protagonist (generally on the edge of things) and makes some fascinating choices. What other tyro director, when faced with a key showdown scene between two people on a couch, would choose to shoot the scene from behind, offering the audience the backs of their heads and automatically turning them into eavesdroppers?

Shame won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly as it fully earns its 18 cert, but it’s a remarkable piece of film-making from a director of real note, featuring a ferocious performance from an actor at the very top of his game.

We await collaboration #3 between McQueen and Fassbender with bated breath.

Michael Doherty