The Impact of Isolation

In Scott Graham’s debut feature, a father and daughter coexist in isolation and a relationship marked by complexity.

There’s a common consensus that one’s place of upbringing is integral to character formation. People talk of being very English, or Italian or Irish. But alongside these comfortable familiarities is a way in which a place can impose its negative aspects onto a person and taint their personality with its own, less desirable characteristics. Scott Graham’s feature-length debut, Shell, illustrates a lonesome despondency imposed on its characters by their isolated, bleak surroundings in rural Scotland.

Shell follows its 17-year-old eponymous character as she attends her father’s petrol station on an isolated road in Scotland. Abandoned by her mother, who hitched an escape on a passing lorry when she was young, Shell idolises her quiet, difficult father and showers him with an excess of affection that makes him uncomfortable now she is a grown woman. Shell’s father, Pete, spends his days tearing apart old cars for scrap, an occupation that reflects the disillusionment and lack of joy that pervades his character, while Shell’s touching knowledge of the ins and outs of her customers’ personal lives belies her unrequited affections and keeps them visiting for the role of listener that she performs. When an Edinburgh couple suffers a collision with a deer, Shell and Pete come to their aid and are left with the deer for venison and a scrap car. It is only when these two characters from a more familiar, “modern” world encounter the quiet, withdrawn father and daughter that it becomes apparent how affected they are by their environment. Shell becomes increasingly resentful of how visitors to the garage sap her energy with their own problems, and increasingly frustrated at her father’s continued sadness over the loss of her mother. When her efforts to make her father happy and compensate for her mother’s absence become uncomfortable, Pete struggles with his demons, creating destruction and despair in what was originally a loving relationship.

Premiered at the San Sebastián Film Festival, Shell has been well received for its quietly sympathetic examination of this complicated relationship. Graham is delighted by the film’s positive reception: “We received a very thoughtful and emotional response from the audience. It’s wonderful the way people look and speak to you differently after they’ve seen your work.” After continued success and winning Best Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Shell will be on general UK release from 15March and promises to raise Graham’s reputation as a Scottish filmmaker. He acknowledges that, on winning a short film prize at London: “I had a sense of my work reaching audiences outside of Scotland, which I knew was important to my survival as a filmmaker.” He recognised this as an important development in his career.

The London prize was awarded to the related short that preceded Shell, but Graham now admits that “privately I was unhappy with the short.” Fortunately its positive external reception, coupled with the director’s unfinished aims for the characters, led to the feature-length version: “There was another, more heartfelt story about the impact isolation has on a relationship that I hadn’t been able to tell in the short. That was the main reason I began developing it as a feature.” Graham explains that, while the short illustrates a central character more akin to Shell’s mother (“a young woman waiting for her father to die so she can escape the decay and isolation of their petrol station”), the feature explores greater depths in the relationship, “between a father and daughter borne out of the departure of the girl’s mother some years ago, the subsequent loss felt by both of them and the consequences of raising a child in such an isolated place.”

The manner in which Shell and Pete’s relationship develops is unique precisely because of the isolation of the place in which they live. They simultaneously lead their days alone on the same small plot of land in a vast wilderness – Pete in his workshop and Shell at the station – and each evening when they reconvene we witness Shell’s desperate attempts to build a home and create a relaxing environment for Pete. With no school, no friends her own age and no socialising aside from the infrequent visits of customers, Pete becomes everything in Shell’s world and she; in turn, takes on a disproportionate significance in the lives of some of her customers. Adam, a boy of her own age and the closest person Shell has to a friend, displays a similar lack of sociability and an unhappy childhood in his almost desperate desire for Shell. Another customer, Hugh, only seems to perpetuate his isolation when he goes to an undisclosed town to visit his estranged sons. These characters illustrate the extent of Graham’s exploration of the effects of this world upon its inhabitants. It is only when we witness the easy, relaxed sociability of the Edinburgh couple (and the woman’s clear concern for Shell and the effects of her lifestyle) that the peculiarities of these people’s situations are made apparent.

While the film deals with an uncomfortable father-daughter relationship, it remains sympathetic to its characters and their plight, creating a haunting portrayal of an incredibly complex relationship. In their leading roles as Shell and Pete, Chloe Pirrie and Joseph Mawle were cast by Graham because they “shared my empathy for the characters.” The process of understanding the loneliness and sense of loss experienced by the protagonists was an essential part of the film’s preparation, so that “we talked about loneliness, about wanting to be loved, about wanting to give love, especially to someone in need, about the way children take on the role of an absent parent.” Graham is clear that the delicate and empathetic way in which Shell and Pete’s relationship was handled was a testament to this process undertaken by the crew: “Everyone there – every actor and crew member – understood the story we were trying to tell, which meant that Chloe and Joe felt accepted as Shell and Pete and all of us could work without fear of judgement.”

While the narrative begins at a point where the father-daughter relationship is visibly strained, the awkwardness between the two raises questions over why Shell and Pete’s relationship became so difficult after what seems to have been a close and affectionate upbringing. Graham explains: “I imagined a kind of haunting for him as she begins to resemble and remind him of her mother.” In this way, it is the wounds of loss that have never healed in Shell and Pete that have now come to the surface. However, it is the simultaneously more mature and confused reactions of Shell to her father’s pining for her mother that cause the ultimate transgression. In literally being prepared to take her mother’s place in her father’s life, it is Shell’s “longing and desire for him that has brought about the conflict we see between them now.” While what he sees of her mother has been visible for many years: “I think it’s only impacting now because of her feelings for him, because she seems to be offering what was taken away. She’s a reminder not so much of the person he loved but of how he felt about her.”

While, because of these transgressions, Shell and Pete could have been difficult characters to portray sympathetically, the empathy is refined and never questioned by the audience. This is extended further in the element of vulnerability that Graham adds to Pete because he suffers from epileptic fits that only serve to increase his interdependence with his daughter. It was an important element to introduce because “it helps us to care for him,” but Graham argues that this illness is part of a metaphor for the greater suffering of Pete’s mind and the way in which this turmoil vibrates through his daughter as she tries to help him (and leads her to try to help him in increasingly inappropriate ways). The fits symbolise the invasion of an unwanted presence just as the vehicles that hurtle through the disquiet of the wilderness represent an unwanted imposition into the pair’s isolation: “I wanted a physical manifestation of his emotional state. The fits pass through him and her as she tries to hold him still in the same way the lorries cause the garage to tremble as they roar past.” Furthermore they represent the futility of Pete continuing to fight his confusing feelings over Shell: “The fits are a violent, uncontrollable movement from a man in an emotional and physical stasis; they are a physical manifestation of his frustration and they are a reminder that nature is stronger than will. They also make him and her vulnerable, which of course they are – to each other and to the elements they’re sheltering from.”

While the fits certainly lend an air of vulnerability to Pete, and while his struggle to contain himself is consistent throughout the film, Shell seems resigned to her unusual lifestyle, however miserable it makes her, and this creates an intriguing comment on the loss of a mother at an early age. Shell consistently fears abandonment, even though at times she simultaneously wants to escape herself. In spite of his own damaged family relationships, Adam seems to present a glimmer of hope for normality that Shell is not willing to seize. Their relationship is left unexplored, although they have the potential to offer mutual support to each other. While their relationship is borne out of their isolation combined with “their need for physical affection and to escape their parents’ need of them,” it simultaneously ends up “mirroring the relationship Pete had with Shell’s mother and its only real potential is for loneliness and a kind of tragic repeating of history.” While Adam’s character, and his potential for change, is left unexplored, on the film’s conclusion Shell makes a dramatic decision that severs any potential that lay in their relationship, consequently critiquing the ideal of isolation.

For Graham, the deer that is struck down by the Edinburgh couple and perishes in Shell’s arms marks a dramatic turning point for Shell at which she knows her life and attitude must change, but struggles to find the direction in which she can steer this change. She has a strong affinity with the deer and this produces in her a questioning of her and her father’s lifestyle. It stands as a metaphor for how much of herself Shell is giving to the passers-by that Graham didn’t realise would be so strong: “I think it’s an important theme – that Shell is being fed on by others, including her father.”

The haunting, majestic setting of the Scottish Highlands and the steady cinematography brooding on its remoteness are as essential to the film as the characters themselves and the lonely expanse, with wind whistling across, becomes a third protagonist: “The physical setting communicates the emotional and physical isolation of their relationship. It says what they cannot to one another.” Graham acknowledges how this setting creates the uniqueness of his characters: “There’s an emptiness that seems to speak to the loneliness of anyone who goes there, and at first [the Highlands] provide a kind of comfort to us – whether it’s spiritual, physical, emotional – but in time I think it becomes very hard to live there, or at least to live and flourish there.” In searching for a location, Graham and his team discovered just how abandoned Shell and Pete’s way of life had become: “We searched and searched for an abandoned garage but very few of those old places remained … So we collected what we could find and built our own.” The otherworldly quality that results from the disused elements that Graham collected to create the setting encapsulates the manner in which the audience always feels removed from the characters while simultaneously empathising with them. While the film’s conclusion is faintly uplifting, Graham has created a unique study of a destructive relationship that nevertheless elicits sympathy and communicates a hopeless sense of the futility of it all. Shell  opens in UK cinemas on 15 March.

Ruby Beesley