Shell is the feature debut by fledgling writer-director Scott Graham. The film is an offshoot of one of Graham’s earlier shorts Native Son. Set in rural Scotland, it tells the story of Shell (Chloe Pirrie) and her father Pete (Joseph Mawle), who both work and live in an isolated petrol station by a hilly landscape. We learn that Shell’s mother left long ago, and the remaining pair lead a lonely, frustrated existence in the stark landscape. Shell makes pains to shower her father with love, preparing the meals and tending to the rare customers who stop by. Pete spends much of his time festering in his garage, repairing any cars that come his way. The film rarely moves out of this claustrophobic orbit.
In the perennially wintery conditions, with little respite, Shelly seems to act as some sort of ray of light to the (mostly male) clientele. Devoid of any attention and oppressed by their environment, a variety of men find solace in Shell’s feminine charms. This is one of the conflicts that fuels the film; Shelly’s ability to warm the deadest of hearts, juxtaposed against the repressed father lingering amongst the oil and metal. While the film isn’t overly explicit, it is clear that Pete has a need to control Shelly. He is desperately scared to lose her, yet knows that in his own way he has created some kind of prison for her. She is too devoted to leave him.
There is little real action to speak of in Shell, as much of the real drama seems to happen between the lines. Customers come and go, a city couple ask for help after striking a deer – but not much else. Graham seems much more focused on the smaller details of their life, and in that way it is a very introspective film. The DOP Yoliswa Gartig and Sound Designer Douglas MacDougall create an authentically icy environment. Gartig’s muted cinematography capturing the stark beauty, while MacDougall emphasising the rustle of the wind and the ominous clang of the garage. Aesthetically the film has much in common with Andrea Arnold’s films, ratcheting up the smaller sounds and images until they become oppressive and uncomfortable.
Pirrie and Mawle are both fine as the angst ridden pair, making the most of a thin script. The film as a whole, however, is much too tasteful. There are no surprises or things that make you look at the world in a different light; in fact, you leave the cinema feeling a little uninspired. There is no real drive to the film, just a series of sombre vignettes meandering towards the 90 minute mark. Some film makers have the ability to elevate the small or mundane to a higher plane, but the same couldn’t be said of Graham’s film. We don’t need any more British films lacking in drama, and most importantly, real imagination or inspiration. It’ so much easier to observe and report, but not that worthwhile in the long run.