Chicken – the brilliance of this British debut
This film was screened in the official selection at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015.
Fiona is the chicken. She belongs to Richard (Scott Chambers) who lives in a caravan with his distressed elder brother Polly (Morgan Watkins). There is also a privileged girl who lives ‘next door’ called Annabell (Yasmin Paige), but she comes later. It is correct, Polly is a dude and the chicken has a name, but these are positively not the only measurements of individuality in the film. Richard has learning difficulties. I do not want to diagnose Richard, and the film is wise not to ask this of us. Richard is able to live out his life with the idiosyncrasy defined by his own actions, rather than any pre-described definition being attached to his being. This is perhaps the most beautiful thing about the film: its evenhanded approach and ability to make the audience live alongside Richard’s curious sensibility. We are able to laugh through the eyes of Richard and equally handle his heartfelt and enriching emotions.
Joe Stephenson, the debut director with a vision to behold, is effortlessly tailored towards the uncensored and picturesque world of Richard. Richard really has a stronghold over this picture. He is utterly compelling. The majority of this traction comes from his love-hate relationship with Polly. They are both victims of each other, victims of genetics (“born wrong” as Polly cries in a pivotal scene), and victims of their own poverty. Polly knows this and it frequently causes him to lose his cool and release the fire of a most austere temperament. He blames Richard for their world of monotony and is desperate for a new chapter in his life. Polly no longer wants to look after Richard, but the irony is that Richard does a very good job of looking after himself. He is seemingly content with very little: he has chickens, fields to play in, and baby tigers to catch!
The most touching scene in the film takes place between Richard and his unlikely new friend Annabell, a lively young lady with plenty of charm and pretty looks. They warm to each other as Richard shows her the forest where his adventurous imaginings of nature take place, hence the baby tigers and other similar conceptions. The relationship dynamics are reminiscent in spirit of Before Sunrise or The Spectacular Now, but unfortunately without the promise of love blooming. There is no denying Richard’s charm, but can he really fit into Annabell’s world? There is a harsh truth running under the surface, it fills the picture with incessant sadness.
The film does a powerful job of crosscutting between the innocent daily activities of Richard and the more corrupt habits of Polly, which include a sidesplitting attempt at stealing a motorbike from the local scrapyard. Unfortunately for Polly, he is not well versed in the art of manipulation and will land himself in frequent scenes of difficulty. While moments of laughter are allowed, the film is adamant not to shy away from the realities of such situations. It is a hard life and heartbreaking conclusions will be reached. Richard is merciful and Polly utterly merciless. A scene of impermeable strain shows the two brothers come head to head in a ferocious battle that is instantly a memorable piece of drama. At times, the dramatics can come close to overcooking, the theatrical context rather explicit, but the ingredients are just so fine and authentic that the latter can easily be forgiven.
Adapted from a play of the same name by Freddie Machin and written for the screen by Chris New (known for his lead performance in Andrew Haigh’s breakout LGBT drama Weekend), the script is sealed impeccably with every beat pushing the audience deeper into the conflicts of its characters. The story is simple and almost too efficient in structure for its own good, but the many layers of intention and the inevitable complexity of such characters is munificent and suffice to say, enough to keep our thoughts alive and stirring. Regardless of formatting and any other rubric, Scott Chambers is so unreservedly unique in his performance as Richard that one feels he could hold the floor by himself without any direction whatsoever. A film made up of these observations could reap great reward, and the viewpoint of Stephenson’s filmmaking fits perfectly into this mold.
It is a formidable challenge for a play to be adapted onto the screen, retain its core in a plausible manner and still be original. Chicken goes beyond these expectations, everything from impulsive performances to bottomless shades of green are presented with the utmost distinction. It is an astonishing piece of work that stands all alone. The film has no companion piece and doesn’t aim to make comparisons. It treats cinema like gold dust and shares a rich profit. 5/5
Watch a clip from CHICKEN below: