Adapted for the big screen by screenwriter Chris New from Freddie Machin’s play, Chicken features a performance of overwhelming maturity from its lead, Scott Chambers. Chambers plays Richard, a fifteen year-old lad with non-specified learning difficulties who lives in a caravan with his brother, Polly (Morgan Watkins). Richard’s best friend and confidant is Fiona, a hen whom he cares for and who accompanies him on care-free strolls around the lushly photographed countryside: bright greens and hazy blue skies beautifully captured by cinematographer Eben Bolter. The countryside setting lends an even greater sense of parental abandonment and contrastingly positioned within the rotten abode, claustrophobic framing of the boys in confined niches echoes the restrictions of a life with no chance of escape.
Spending the little cash he is able to earn on drink, Polly wants out of any obligation to his brother and to move forward in life – however unlikely that may be given his destructive behaviour. Watkins’ turn bristles with resentment and pent-up frustration, a fearsome physicality standing in marked contrast to Richard’s gentle, softly-spoken timidity. In a reversal of roles assumed it is the kindly Richard who seeks to care for and impress his elder brother, carefully arranging a breakfast of stale croissants and Marmite grog each morning. Polly’s frustration with the hand dealt them is unleashed with increasing menace through unprovoked violence and verbal aggression, the reasons for which do become clear as events turn sour. That Richard’s condition remains undefined is in part an acknowledgement that he has never received the support necessary to tackle his troubles but also that they by no means define him.
The unblinkered, uncensored nature of his musings – often recounted to Fiona, who he considers “very, very beautiful” – are touchingly, refreshingly forthright but also demonstrate an aching vulnerability. A chance meeting with the initially obnoxious Annabell (Yasmin Paige), who moves to the stunning country grange in sight of the caravan, brings two divergent worlds together and gives rise to a friendship representative of how society’s have-nots are treated by those more privileged. Contrary to its title, there is nothing at all cowardly about Chicken. Stephenson builds his film around an astonishing central performance and does not lurch towards melodrama or pity, confidently articulating a compelling, heartfelt narrative with tact, compassion and honesty.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens