Michael Fassbender is that rare movie star for whom the heroic and uplifting are rarely visited realms. The 39-year-old Irish-German actor finds the magnetic centre of his character’s flaws, and his best work has been about taking those failings to the point where they threaten the stability of his subjects, or dominate the very film that presents them. In special effects blockbusters such as the X-Men franchise, which added Fassbender as a young Magneto for the 2011 reboot First Class, he can be coolly seductive, the dark undercurrent to any argument for furthering the greater good, but it’s his work for the very best contemporary filmmakers that demonstrates just what he’s capable of.
Born in the German city of Heidelberg and raised from the age of two in Ireland, there were hints of Fassbender’s veiled charisma and untenable depths in his grab bag of early roles. His breakthrough, however, was his tour de force turn in Hunger (2008) as Bobby Sands, the IRA member who died following a 1981 hunger strike in a British jail. For director Steve McQueen, the British conceptual artist making his feature film debut, Fassbender transformed his body, but he also revealed the depths and doubts that resided inside Sands with the film’s fulcrum: a fierce, flowing 17-minute long single shot that documented a meeting between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) hoping to persuade him to abandon his campaign.
Since then Fassbender has worked with filmmakers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Steven Soderbergh (Haywire), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), and any selection of his work reveals an actor working at an elevated pitch whatever the genre.
SBS On Demand has three of Fassbender’s most intriguing performances ready for you to watch.
For her second feature, the English filmmaker Andrea Arnold was able to do something that few directors can at this point: cast Michael Fassbender in a crucial supporting role. Set on and around an Essex housing estate, Fish Tank is the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a 15-year-old hellion whose anger at her circumstances and uncertainty about what could alleviate them is played out with sudden, searing urgency. Fassbender plays Conor O’Reilly, the latest boyfriend of her dissolute mother, Jo (Kierston Wareing), and at first he’s attentive to the combative teenager and her younger sister, even encouraging Mia to pursue her interest in dancing and lending her a video camera to record an audition tape.
But Conor, in what’s become a recurring touchstone in Fassbender’s work, is governed by his deeply held desires, and the way that he involves himself in Mia’s life and takes advantage of her, is both simplistic in design and cruel in execution. There’s almost something clichéd about how the Irish security guard entangles Mia in his own needs, and that makes the outcome all the stronger; you can imagine it happening again and again. A naturalistic gem, Fish Tank was the first screen performance by Jarvis, who reportedly could be as unpredictable as her character, but with Arnold’s guidance Fassbender never overwhelms her in their scenes together. The give and take between the two is heartbreaking.
Fassbender reunited with Hunger director Steve McQueen for the director’s second feature, an icy depiction of urban malaise and sexual dependency (they would also work together again on 2013’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years A Slave). Shame is a descent into despair and the onset of ruin, and what’s fascinating in how that plays out is the differing intentions of the filmmaker and his lead. McQueen, with his evaluative distance and precise technique, doesn’t want to explain too much about the central character of Brandon, a single New York executive whose nondescript life in solely punctuated by sexual encounters he obsessively pursues, but Fassbender signals his internal hunger, demanding addiction, and lurking self-loathing through an interiority that pulses like a homing beacon.
Brandon explicitly doesn’t want to talk about his past, and McQueen supplies no flashbacks. When his younger sister, a struggling lounge singer named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives in town and his apartment, Brandon’s clear with her that doesn’t want to discuss whatever it is they share. Shame is explicit and wounded, making a case without offering a motive. It divided audiences upon release, but it’s hard to deny how fluent Fassbender’s blighted physicality is, or the illustrative lengths his portrayal goes to. In this case the spirit is willing, and so is the flesh.
A Dangerous Method
In David Cronenberg’s screen adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s 2002 stage play The Talking Cure, the creation of psychoanalysis at the opening of the 20th century creates unforeseen challenges for all those involved, whether analyst or patient. “Why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most natural basic instincts?” Fassbender’s Swiss doctor Carl Jung asks his Viennese mentor, Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud, and the actor’s performance – every hair in place, glasses on, clipboard at hand – explores the notion of self-control. By uncovering the psychological fissures in his patient, an electrifying Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, Jung undercuts his own academic discipline and supposedly respectable morality.
Already encouraged by Vincent Cassel’s rogue physician, Jung’s treatment of Spielrein becomes a gateway to his own desires, and as part of a compelling acting ensemble it’s riveting to watch Fassbender wrestle with notions that would have torpedoed characters he previously embodied. The film’s narrative moves towards the professional disagreements between Freud and Jung – played out with letters as feisty as two doctors could get 100 years ago – but it is never better than when Fassbender is responding to either Spielrein or Sarah Gadon as Jung’s wife, Emma. He’s terrified by the possibilities.