Shell: San Sebastian Review

Shell - H 2012
Promising Scottish writer-director expands his 2007 short into a quietly impressive calling-card feature of domestic strife in the Highlands.

Joseph Mawle and newcomer Chloe Pirrie star in writer/director Scott Graham's windswept debut, a drama set in a remote corner of Scotland.

Fiery passions illuminate chilly Scottish environments in Scott Graham's intense domestic drama Shell, latest addition to the strain of grittily elemental British cinema recently represented by Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. A fine showcase for the skills of gamine-feral newcomer Chloe Pirrie as the eponymous teenager, this is austere, upscale festival fare whose distribution prospects in English-speaking countries - Scotland apart - won't be helped by the occasional indecipherability of the mumbled, accented dialogue. A natural for late-evening TV play in the U.K., it reaped positive critical reactions after bowing at San Sebastian and a similar reception to its London Film Festival screenings could propel it to a limited theatrical run. 

The big screen is of course the best way to appreciate the spectacular beauty of German DP Yoliswa Gärtig's widescreen digital cinematography which captures the stark magnificence of the countryside around Dundonnell, in a corner of the Western Highlands known as the "Great Wilderness." This sparsely populated spot is home to fortyish Pete (Joseph Mawle) and his 17-year-old daughter Shell (Pirrie), who run a gas station and auto-repair-shop-cum-junkyard. The pair have been alone since the departure, for unspecified reasons, of Shell's mother some thirteen years before, and have evidently long developed a flinty self-suffiency.

Occasional customers call by for fuel, most of them regulars, with Shell's unadorned charms proving irresistibly magnetic for both divorcee Hugh (Michael Smiley) and, more suitably, local lad Adam (Iain de Caestecker.) But Shell is careful never to get too close - even with her father, whose epileptic condition renders her more caretaker than daughter. The chance visit of an Edinburgh couple, whose car is totaled following a collision with a deer, meanwhile opens the girl's horizons a little further when she receives a copy of Carson McCullers' novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Graham's choice of the McCullers classic, with its youthful, musically-inclined heroine stuck in a 1930s Georgia mill-town, is clearly far from random, and has a certain geographical aptness as the title is taken from a poem by 'Fiona Macleod', pseudonym for Scottish writer William Sharp. Like Sharp, Graham succeeds in presenting the world through female 'eyes', as Shell is all about sensory evocations: sight, touch, hearing. And while the laconic dialogue is more a matter of significant silences than actual speech, the eloquence of the howling, whistling wind is more than enough to fill the gaps. Sound editor Douglas MacDougall is, fortunately, among the more experienced contributors, having worked on such wild Caledonian fare as Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising, as well as several collaborations with Peter Mullan and David Mackenzie.

Edinburgh-based Graham makes a plausible case here for following in Mullan and Mackenzie's footsteps as the next Scottish director to make international waves. Expanding and significantly altering his 2007 short of identical title, Graham relies a little too heavily on screenwriting contrivance at times - Pete and Shell have no family, no friends, have effectively withdrawn from society for unexplained causes - but succeeds in giving nuance and complexity to both Shell's character and her tough situation.

As effectively underplayed by critically acclaimed British TV specialist Mawle, strongly resembling a lankier John Hawkes here, transplanted north-Englander Pete comes across as a benign but malfunctioning cyborg, damaged and despairing, both scary and touching in his painful plight. Much less experienced, with only a couple of small-screen appearances to her name, 25-year-old Pirrie meanwhile successfully slips into the skin of a lass eight years her junior, maintaining our interest and sympathy even through the screenplay's occasional veering towards melodrama.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival (New Directors), September 24, 2012.

Production company: Brocken Spectre
Cast: Chloe Pirrie, Joseph Mawle, Michael Smiley, Kate Dickie, Iain de Caestecker, Paul Hickey
Director / Screenwriter: Scott Graham
Producers: David Smith, Margaret Matheson
Executive producer: Helge Albers
Director of photography: Yoliswa Gärtig
Production designer: James Lapsley

Costume designer: Rebecca Gore
Editor: Rachel Tunnard

Sales agent: Bac, Paris
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes