There’s a sense of restless dormancy beneath the quiescence of Scott Graham’s intimate Highland drama, Shell (2012); the director injecting his debut feature with a fascinating undercurrent that transforms an apparently simple coming-of-age tale into all the more imperative viewing. Exquisitely shot and perfectly considered, it’s a real British gem with exceptional performances across the board – with newcomer Chloe Pirrie a particularly bright highlight. It avoids the straying into the grit and grime that oft furnishes typical indies from our isle, and instead aims for something more poetic and profound.
Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of a small petrol station and its rarely employed forecourt, the film follows the fortunes of the eponymous Shell (Pirrie). She has lived at the station for her entire life, most of it with only her epileptic father, Pete (Joseph Mawle); her mother abandoned them with Shell was just four-years-old. It quickly becomes clear that their relationship has become strained as Shell has neared womanhood; partly due to the fear – for both – that she will naturally need to fly the coop eventually, and also partly due to her resemblance to her mother. Graham signals the ambiguity of their relationship from early on, never explicitly asserting the nature of Shell and Pete’s ‘love’.
When the pair venture out to help a stranded couple, questions are asked and answered, but there’s still much left unsaid. That’s the way throughout the film as the two protagonists skirt around one another whilst the wind whips at the walls of their humble abode. Their isolation – punctuated only by the occasional customer (one played by Michael Smiley) – would seem to have been what drove Shell’s mother away, and Pete lives in fear of history repeating itself. This is hardly aided by Shell’s polymorphous role as mother, daughter, and – in some ways – wife; whilst she becomes more determined not to leave her father, she’s increasingly intrigued by the prospect of what awaits her down in the town below.
Graham’s cast are all fantastic here, but Pirrie’s phenomenal turn – filling Shell with a plethora of conflicting and wholly believable aspects – marks her out as one to watch. The sublime cinematography and subtle nature of the plot combine to create a lyrical exploration of claustrophobia, even in such an enormous and expansive landscape. As both protagonists wrestle with their complex relationship the inevitability of its end – whether within the runtime or not – becomes a knot in the stomach. Shell is a captivating exploration of an unusual relationship that grips from first minute to last, built around a pair of truly arresting performances.
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