Nominated for three awards at the BFI London Film Festival including Best Newcomer for lead actress, Chloe Pirrie, Shell (2012) marks the arrival of Scottish writer-director Scott Graham as an outstanding new talent in British cinema. The film also stars Joseph Mawle (Game of Thrones), Ian De Caestecker (The Secret of Crickley Hall) and Kate Dickie (Red Road).
17 year old Shell (Chloe Pirrie) lives and works miles away from civilization at a sedate petrol station in the desolate Scottish Highlands. Aside from passing trade and the occasional regular, Shell’s only company is her introvert and epileptic father Pete (Jospeh Mawle) The two live alone and under the heavy cloud of their absent mother and wife who left when Shell was only four years old. On the cusp of womanhood, Shell is desperately trying to find her place in the world.
She struggles with her identity which fluctuates between the roles of daughter, mother and wife. Shell’s enthusiastic customer service skills give her an insight into life beyond the forecourt. A businessman (Michael Smiley) who regularly attends the station becomes a little to over familiar with Shell as her burgeoning sexuality appears to have a magnetic and uncomfortable affect on him. For one young regular however, Shell shares mutual feelings. Adam (Ian De Caestecker) fills his car up on a weekly basis and the pair grow closer with each visit. An offer to take Shell away from her isolated life appears to trigger off some bizarre feelings in the young girl who’s excessively affectionate connection with her father suddenly takes an uncomfortable and disturbing twist...
Director Graham’s vision is clear and consistent from the very beginning. The camera pays a great deal of attention to everything in it’s focus, from rattling crockery to the great sweeping landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. Graham is a director who has learned his craft from the greats and explores isolation under the influence of Wim Wenders. The tone of Shell follows a recent trend in British cinema evident in the work of Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold where the film extends beyond the screen and becomes almost sensorial. A similar tone is explored in the films of Cate Shortland (Somersault) and the landscape and location become as integral as the film’s protagonist. The viewer is drawn in from the start as the camera floats fluidly down a desolate road, dragging its audience deep into the alien landscape. Dialogue is kept to a minimum as the director choses to explore Shell’s story through hauntingly beautiful visuals and trusts the viewer to form opinions on the characters through the subtlety of actions rather than exorbitant words or superfluous backstories.
Events unfold at a slow and steady pace, giving the viewer time to absorb the beauty and detail in the cinematography. Once the relationship between Shell and her father has been established there is a sharp rise in tension which continues to accelerate until the film’s end. Wholly unpredictable, Shell fails to follow linear plot traditions and instead information is drip fed to the audience, mounting tension and garnering intrigue as it weaves delicately through controversial themes. The exploration of which are pursued organically and unfold at a rate that the audience is expected to accept and appreciate rather than judge.
Burdened with these themes comes an astounding cast led by the wonderful Chloe Pirrie, who’s portrayal of a young girl on the verge of womanhood is both believable and heartbreakingly realised. Not only is Shell responsible for fueling the vehicles but she also fuels sexual desire in the men with which she associates. With the awakening of her sexuality, comes a great deal of uncertainty in her actions and behavior. The fine line between the child and the woman becomes blurred and is alarmingly misread by her surrounding males. Interestingly the isolation of the characters offers a unique exploration of this theme that under other circumstances would be read as predatory and exploitative. Pirrie performs the role with wide eyed wonder and sensitivity that makes for a fascinating character study.
In another stand out role, Joseph Mawle creates a devastating portrayal of a heartbroken father, endlessly crushed by the absence of his wife and therein lies the problem in his relationship with Shell. Shell’s physical development and burgeoning sexuality act as a reminder of his absent wife crushing him all the more. As she grows, and without a female figure in her life, Shell subconsciously attempts to fill the gaping void. The dynamic is intriguing and sensitively handled by all involved. Mawle explores the character like an injured animal, he immediately draws sympathy from the viewer and his pain is constantly evident in both his look and physicality.
Unbeknownst to Shell, surrounding her is a whirlwind of sexual desire. Approached from various angles by the men of the film. Michael Smiley adds another great role to his acting credentials as a garage regular who acts on instinct. He is subtle, suitably smarmy and becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as his feelings for Shell rear their ugly head. Alongside this comes a great performance from Ian De Caestecker as Adam, who is of similar age to Shell. Both Caestecker and Pirrie have incredible onscreen chemistry, that can be felt in moments of awkward silence. The sexual undercurrent rattles beneath the surface each time the pair feature in a scene. Isolation heightens the tension between the pair. In the great outdoors the solitary circumstance results in the same effect as if the scene was taking place in the confinements of a teenage girl’s bedroom.
Shell for all of its controversies, is an ethereal masterpiece and a notable addition to a mounting catalogue of outstanding British film. Beautifully photographed and perfectly acted, it’s hard to believe that this deeply affecting and haunting film is director Scott Graham’s debut feature. An astounding achievement from all involved, Shell packs a visceral punch that will leave a permanent mark on all who see it.