The highlight of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival for me was Scott Graham’s debut feature Shell. I left wanting to see it again, to pick up the subtleties I know I missed first time round, but also intrigued as to what Graham does next.
There are many references and influences that the film throws at you. Just some that occurred to me were Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Bambi, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, and there are many more. A couple of film festivals ago there was another fine production that was set in the Scottish Highlands, Island, and it would make a terrific double bill with Shell, as they share not only a setting, but a sense of isolation and unusual family dynamics. They also both have memorable performances from their female leads.
Chloe Pirrie is the ‘Shell’ that gives the film its title, and her performance is mesmeric. You can see why she entrances everyone who stops at her petrol station. She may always look cold, but Pirrie manages to convey that there is a fire in Shell that she is finding difficulty in suppressing. She is at the age where adolescence is becoming adulthood, and this time, while confusing for anyone, is more complex for her than most. Pirrie recently appeared in one of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ dramas, and on the strength of that and Shell she has got a long career ahead. The producers of the long awaited film version of Sunset Song have missed a trick in not casting her as Chris Guthrie.
* (This paragraph has what some could consider a spoiler, so jump to the next if you want to see the film ‘fresh’)
Matching Pirrie’s fantastic central performance is Joseph Mawle as her father, Pete, a man who looks like Richard Ashcroft’s older, harder, brother and who you may have seen as Benjen Stark in Game of Thrones. The relationship between the two is close and confusing, and not just for the audience. The central themes in Shell are love and loss, and how confusing both of these things can be. While Shell has a few suitors, some more appropriate then others, none will be able to match her father in her eyes, and the awkward tension between the two leads is palpable, uncomfortable and heart-breaking.
It is here that Graham’s wonderfully understated direction comes into its own, allowing the camera to remain still on faces for what can feel awkwardly long, and letting the silence of the setting add to what is being left unsaid. Shell boasts a fine cast and Graham knows how to film them but when the director turns his camera away from the people he captures the landscape with an artist’s eye. There are frames in the film that I would happily have hanging on my wall. It’s impressive, and quite stunning at times. Graham manages to find beauty in the small and everyday, and then pans out to put this personal drama into a wider context.
Some may say that there is a lack of plot, but that’s the point. The movie is about isolation, and what can be more isolating than to be always with the one you love but who in turn cannot, or will not, give you the contact you crave. If you want a musical equivalent, think Joy Division. The people who visit Shell, who offer her some interaction, do not offer her an escape, however much they may want to. The only person that can help her escape is the one she cannot do without, or so she believes.
The supporting cast are also impressive. Kate Dickie and Paul Thomas Hickey are pitch perfect as the central belt couple who hit the Highlands in more ways than one. For a while they become the audience’s representatives as they find out the truth, or a truth, about Shell and Pete. Also dropping by the petrol station are Ian De Caestecker, Morvern Christie, Tam Dean Burn and ‘Tyres O’Flaherty’ himself, Michael Smiley. These might be smaller roles, but each one adds to Shell’s story, and that’s why we’re gripped after all.
Shell is on at the GFT at the moment until the 28th March and if you’re looking for quality, thoughtful, film making then it’s for you. I hope it will get the wider release that it deserves, but until then, catch it while you can.
This is the trailer: