Impressive feature debut set in Highlands by Scottish writer-director Scott Graham
Shot with a raw eloquence that displays a deep understanding of its Highland setting, and performed with sensitivity and directness, Shell is an impressive debut by Scottish writer-director Scott Graham, and an effective showcase for talented German cinematographer Yoliswa Gärtig. Chloe Pirrie quietly but confidently holds the gaze as the eponymous teenage loner, who passes her days manning her father’s isolated garage; and brief appearances create disproportionate impact, particularly Michael Smiley’s extraordinarily nuanced and moving turn as one of Shell’s troubled customers.
But if the film barely puts a foot wrong in terms of integrity, commitment and visual impact, it falters somewhat on content and form. Graham expanded Shell from a 2006 short, and while the films are very different, this feature still feels distinctly like an over-extended short. Perhaps it’s appropriate to a degree given the film’s achingly spacious, desolate and unpopulated setting, but there isn’t quite enough content here to fill out feature length. Less forgivably, some of the ideas that do blossom are on the clichéd side: a preoccupation with a dead deer feels like forced symbolism, and the detail of Shell’s relationship with her father can also shade out of deeply-felt, character-led drama into self-conscious reaction-baiting. It seems sometimes that Graham is playing out what’s expected of a gloomy, austere arthouse flick rather than leading with his own ideas.
Still, first films come a hell of a lot clumsier, and are rarely so strong on atmosphere. Graham’s way with actors can’t be faulted on this evidence, and there’s no question
that his work here sets out the stall for a promising feature career. A strong international festival response to Shell – it was admired at the San Sebastian and London film festivals, and won the top prize at Turin – guarantees interest in whatever Graham does next.
Selected release from Fri 15 Mar.