Carey Mulligan’s greatest strength as an actress is that she’s good at looking. This talent first announced itself in An Education; some of that film’s loveliest moments occur when Mulligan looks out at rooms filled with dancing and music and life, wordlessly conveying the nervous enchantment of a child entering an adult world for the first time.
Mulligan is one of the most empathetic actresses working today, with the power to make the audience understand the depth and root of her emotions and to make them feel those emotions at the same time.
More recently Mulligan has put her innate looking-at-things skill to use in Drive, where she and Ryan Gosling develop a thrilling, utterly believable attraction whilst doing little more than just looking at each other. Without the need for snappy dialogue or laboured music cues, the film perfectly captures what it’s like to meet someone who makes you giddy just from the sight of them, someone whom you just can’t stop looking at. Their courtship gives a strange sort of validation for the ultraviolence that follows, providing it with context and motivation.
Mulligan has a further opportunity to look meaningfully in Shame, the Steve McQueen-directed sex addiction drama in which she co-stars with Michael Fassbender. As the bruised-but-merry Sissy, her significant looks are employed to depict the sadness which stems from her fraught, transgressive relationship with her brother Brandon (Fassbender). Their maladjusted relationship is the core of the film and defines them both; expressing itself through Sissy’s self-harm and Brandon’s unquenchable need for sex.
It seems strange to focus on Mulligan‘s role, excellent as she is in it, when Fassbender appears in every scene of the film and gives such a bold, mesmeric performance (as long as he continues to have such good taste in projects, he will surely become one of the key actors of his generation).
The connection to Mulligan’s looks of developing emotions is relevant, however, as Brandon in Shame uses those same looks for more malign purposes. In an early scene of the film he makes eye contact with a woman on the subway, sharing flirtatious glances. Like Mulligan in Drive he just can’t look away, but here it’s a trick: one of the many subtle ways in which he gets women interested in him. She thinks that he’s making some fleeting yet deep connection, when he’s really trying to position her into giving him what he wants.
Shame is less a film about having a sex addiction than it is about having that addiction whilst looking like Michael Fassbender and having the intelligence to manipulate situations for your own benefit. It’s a study of a man who wants something constantly and has the ability to obtain it, again and again, and again and again and again, until there’s nothing of him left but his need.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.