Release Date(s)1988 (April 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Barron Films/Skouras Pictures (Umbrella Entertainment/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B+
Shame was the debut feature film from prolific Australian television director Steve Jodrell. It was released toward the end of the Australian New Wave that had started in the late Seventies and ran through the Eighties, which included films like Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, and Malcolm. Yet Shame skates a line between those films and traditional low-budget Ozploitation cinema—it’s essentially a serious message film contained within a B-movie wrapper. Writer Beverly Blankenship came up with the idea for Shame after watching Mad Max; she wanted to tell a similar tale, but featuring a woman as the drifter who reluctantly helps people in need. Blankenship started out with little more than the concept of a woman riding into a small town on a motorcycle, and the rest of the story gradually developed from there.
The final script that she wrote (along with Michael Brindley) features Asta Cadell (Deborra-Lee Furness) as a barrister on a motorcycle holiday. When her bike breaks down after an accident, she rolls into the next town to get it repaired. Since parts aren’t available, she ends up staying overnight in the garage of the mechanic Tim (Tony Barry). That night, Tim’s daughter Lizzie (Simone Buchanan) comes home after having been sexually assaulted by a group of boys, and Asta discovers that it’s a common occurrence in this town, but one that’s always excused as “boys being boys,” with the girls having “asked for it.” Even the feckless local police sergeant Wal (Peter Aanensen) has been actively helping to cover up everything. As Asta gets to know the family, she encourages Lizzie to take a stand by laying charges, which starts a chain of events that leads to the whole town erupting into violence.
One of the most interesting aspects of Shame is the way that it mixes gender issues with class conflict. The men in this town are all out of work, so they’re being supported by the women who work at the local petfood canning facility owned by the wealthy Mrs. Rudolph (Pat Skevington). As a result, the sexual violence perpetrated by the young men of the town is partly their way of lashing out against their feelings of emasculation. Rape in Shame is unquestionably a crime of power, not sex, as it’s a way of reasserting male dominance in a world where men have become dependent on women. That’s complicated by everyone’s dependency on Mrs. Rudolph, whose son is one of the boys involved. Everyone is afraid of making waves with her, and she’s more than willing to buy off anyone who tries. Justice is denied to those who lack the financial independence to make it happen.
Shame isn’t a particularly subtle film, but it wasn’t intended to be. While there has been some sociopolitical progress since it was originally released, at least in terms of women’s voices being given more credibility in the pursuit of justice, the inevitable backlash to that progress means that its message is still relevant today. The fact that Shame cloaks that message in the form of an adventure film was a hard sell in 1988, but it’s an effective way of getting across its themes. Steve Jodrell summed that up best in an interview with Signet in 1998:
’’No-one really wanted to touch it because they couldn’t work out what it was about. It was not quite entertaining; it was a little bit too art-house; it was a message film, and yet Michael and Beverly Blankenship had always designed the film as a kind of B grade drive-in movie. They did not want it to end up in an art-house circuit. They wanted it to be an action flick that had some things to say in it.”
Shame does indeed have something to say, and while it was overshadowed in the United States by the release of The Accused that same year, Shame addresses the subject in a far more interesting and nuanced fashion. Deborra-Lee Furness gives a powerful performance in the lead role, and Jodrell wisely opted to avoid showing any actual rapes in his film, focusing instead on the reactions of the victims afterward. He returned to television after this and never made another feature film, but Shame was enough to secure his place in the pantheon of great Australian filmmakers.
Cinematographer Joseph Pickering shot Shame on 16 mm film (in Super-16 format) using Panaflex cameras and spherical lenses, with editing and other postproduction work being completed on video. The negative was conformed to that and blown up to 35 mm for Shame’s theatrical release, which was framed at 1.85:1. This version uses a 2017 restoration that was performed by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. There’s no information regarding the elements that they used, but it does look like they went back to the Super 16 negative whenever possible, although they still used the video master for the opening titles and a few brief shots throughout the film. That means that everything starts out unpromisingly during the opening title sequence, with the image being very soft, smooth, and undetailed; it looks like upscaled standard definition video, because that’s exactly what it is. The situation improves once the titles are over, aside from a few shots here and there. The rest of the film displays a decent amount of fine detail, though the grain seems light even for Super 16; it’s possible that some digital noise reduction has been applied, though not in a destructive fashion. There are some occasional scratches, but those were baked into the original negative due to problems with the cameras during filming. The color timing is a bit inconsistent, with flesh tones sometimes appearing natural, and other times looking a bit too ruddy. Peter Aanensen’s face suffers the worst, as his skin often looks too pink and freshly scrubbed. The issue isn’t Umbrella’s fault, as the clips that the NFSA has uploaded to YouTube share the same timing as the Blu-ray. It’s not a major problem, but the inconsistency does keep the film from looking the best that it possibly could.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a fairly undistinguished mono track, clean and free of distortion or other major defects, but with a somewhat limited frequency response. The dialogue is clear, and the score by Mario Millo (The Lighthorsemen) sounds as good as it can given the limited fidelity.
Umbrella Entertainment originally offered an Australian Blu-ray release of Shame back in 2021 as #13 in their Sunburnt Screens line. This new North American release through their partnership with Vinegar Syndrome appears to be a repressing of the same disc, right down the menu design. The artwork is slightly different, but still based on the same theatrical poster design. There’s alternate artwork on the reverse, meant to viewed through the clear amaray case when the package is opened. There’s a new 24-page booklet inside featuring an extended essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. She examines Shame in terms of the way that it fits at the intersection between traditional westerns and rape/revenge dramas, as well as placing it in context with the #MeToo movement. (For American audiences who may not be familiar with Simone Buchanan, Heller-Nicholas provides some important background information for how the actress ended up in a situation that was a role-reversal of Shame back in 2010.) There’s also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, featuring new artwork designed by Alessa Kreger. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Steve Jodrell, Simone Buchanan, & Michael Brindley
- All New Interviews with Steve Jodrell, Michael Brindley, Beverly Blankenship, Simone Buchanan, & Paul Barron (HD/Zoom – 77:22)
- Oral History with Paul Harris and Steve Jodrell (HD – 22:43)
- Original Footage from the Premiere for Shame (Upscaled SD – 14:15)
- ABC TV-Artspace Interview with Deborra-Lee Furness (HD – 26:54)
- Original Archival Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:32)
The archival commentary featuring Jodrell, Buchanan, and Brindley was originally recorded for Umbrella’s 2008 DVD release of Shame. Beverly Blankenship wasn’t available to join them, but she asked that they make a point of sharing how her basic story was inspired by watching Mad Max. Jodrell gives some technical information about shooting on Super-16, and how the fact that their camera kept scratching the negative forced them into reshoots. The group also covers other aspects of the production, as well as discussing the themes of the film. They make an interesting point when talking about the nature of the police sergeant; namely, that the law isn’t a force unless the community is behind it. That was a strikingly prescient comment considering the events of the last several years.
The All New Interviews feature is actually a Zoom chat that brings together Jodrell, Beverly Blankenship, Michael Brindley, Simone Buchanan, and producer Paul Barron. The whole thing is moderated by Paul Harris, who was the host of the long running show Film Buff Forecast on the Australian community radio station 3RRR. They start with the origins of the story, including its parallels with Mad Max, Shane, and High Plains Drifter. From there, they cover the difficulties in getting the film financed without changing the script, the casting process, locations, production issues, marketing, and the infamous snafu with the Australian Film Institute awards. They also talk about the importance of keeping the original ending intact, and share some derisive thoughts about the American remake. The segment includes a few brief clips from the premiere of Shame, but for the most part, it plays out uninterrupted and unedited. Fortunately, Harris does a fine job of moderating, and he always keeps things moving.
The Oral History is really a conversation between Jodrell and Harris, with the pair providing a more focused look at the production of the film than in the commentary track or the interviews. They speak over a collection of behind-the-scenes photographs, though it’s a small set that repeats several times.
The Original Footage from the Premiere is a surprisingly energetic affair, considering the nature of the film, with a band playing upbeat live music outside of the theatre. It does include footage of the cast and crew arriving, as well as reactions from audience members after the screening.
The ABC TV-Artspace Interview was taped in 2009 while Furness was promoting her most recent film Blessed. The conversation naturally begins there, but it inevitably gets to Shame, before looking at the lengthy marriage between Furness and Hugh Jackman.
Shame isn’t particularly well known outside of Australia, and, well, that’s a shame. Anyone whose only familiarity with the story via American remake on the Lifetime cable network hasn’t really experienced it. Umbrella Entertainment’s previous Australian Blu-ray release was Region-free, but it still wasn’t easily accessible to North American audiences. Fortunately, their partnership with Vinegar Syndrome has changed that fact. The extras are identical, but the packaging is improved, and the new essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas adds some value. If you haven’t seen Shame, this is the best way to do so.
- Stephen Bjork