Saturday, 16 March 2013

Gas, food, longing: "Shell"

Shell sounds like a parody of the Grimmer British Artflick. (Heaven knows how writer-director Scott Graham pitched it.) We're at a filling garage in the Scottish Highlands, the kind of quiet pitstop that might merit one or two scenes in any conventional road movie. The garage is owned by Pete (Joseph Mawle), a gruff, epileptic mechanic whom you quickly sense is happier tinkering under the bonnets of cars than he is around flesh and blood; it's run by his 17-year-old daughter Shell (Chloe Pirrie), who's bored and yearning and very much stuck where she is for the time being.

Everyone else, we gather, eventually leaves this locale - including Pete's wife, who walked out when Shell was four. (A recurring image: the tail lights of cars pulling off the shale and away down the road, out of sight.) Back at the ranch, to a soundtrack of howling mountain wind, Pete stays out the back, coming in only for his nightly supper (deer stew, with slices of white bread to mop up with), while Shell lingers up front, striking up fleeting sparks with whichever regulars happen to pass through, and reminding Dad of her mum.

That last clause might sound warning bells. We're not quite in the out-there territory of Tim Roth's unshakeable directorial debut The War Zone, but in this wilderness, Pete and Shell could be Adam and Eve, the first (and last) man and woman around for miles. Graham's interest lies in the hesitant dance the pair perform, trying to be intimate while still being appropriate: her snuggling up to him, desperate for any trace of warmth or affection, Pete warily backing off, and having to kick in the plexiglass window of one old banger in an attempt to let off steam.

Since the success of Fish Tank, there's been a school of British filmmaking indebted to Andrea Arnold, in part because everyone's aware there's an audience for it. Shell could almost be that film's Jarvis-Fassbender relationship, transposed to a more scenic (yet more remote) backdrop. Yet it's admirably precise in its detail and performances: Pete collapsing onto a kitchen floor that doesn't look to have been mopped for some while, a shelf full of faded, dated Dairy Milk holders no rep has been in to fill up or replace. Mawle, all pinched and pained restraint, could have been carved out of the surrounding hillsides; Pirrie alternates fierceness and vulnerability in the manner of a younger Emily Watson, never letting us forget a young girl's future is at stake. Necessarily limited and low-key, but assured and very atmospheric with it.

Shell is in selected cinemas.

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