Director: Joe Stephenson
Major Players: Scott Chambers, Yasmin Paige, Morgan Watkins
Out Of Five: 3.5
Originally a stage play in 2011 at the Southwark Playhouse, Chicken arrives on the big screen this week complete with some high-profile support. The British indie has caught the attention of no less than Sir Ian McKellan, something that will hopefully bring it some well-deserved attention.
In the East Anglian countryside, Richard (Scott Chambers) lives with his older brother, Polly (Morgan Watkins) in a run-down caravan. The teenager has learning difficulties, loves animals and has a chicken for his best friend, while Polly is angry at the world, drifting from one casual job to another and resenting having to look after his brother. Richard unexpectedly finds a friend in landowner’s daughter Annabell (Yasmin Paige), while at the same time Polly finds a job with a circus and decides it’s time for him to strike out on his own.
There are echoes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men here, but set in the English countryside. And while the landscape is beautiful – and lyrically photographed by Eben Bolter in a clean, unfussy style that’s in harmony with the setting – the lives of the two brothers most certainly aren’t. They’re permanently short of money, the caravan is filthy, the food looks inedible and Richard has to wash himself in the stream. The echoes continue with Richard having learning difficulties and Polly being a chancer. The main difference is that Polly is a deeply unlikeable character and there’s no tragic murder.
For a film that’s based on a play, it doesn’t look like one. It’s not hemmed in by interior scenes, with large chunks set outside, either in the forest or in the fields outside the caravan, where Fiona the chicken’s makeshift coop has been set up. There’s many things that we’re not told in terms of the brothers’ back story: how they came to end up in the caravan, how Richard acquired Fiona. But we gradually learn more about their previous family life and this is at the heart of the shattering climax. There are moments, however, when the storyline lurches for no apparent reason: when Polly asks Annabell to look after Richard, they’ve only known each other for a couple of minutes and it comes completely out of the blue. It doesn’t quite fit.
There’s some powerful scenes, especially those between the two brothers, and they grow in intensity as Polly becomes increasingly likely to spontaneously combust with frustration, anger and one too many beers. It’s hard looking after the adoring, well intentioned Richard who tries hard but finds day to day life such a challenge. Nobody would deny that, but his behaviour towards the teenager is shocking at times and genuinely distressing.
It’s an emotional film, and hits you right where it hurts. Your sympathy for Richard is huge. He’s an innocent but, despite his limitations, he’s more intelligent than he might appear. You wonder what his life would have been like had his circumstances been better and more encouraging. Scott Chambers’ performance breaks your heart, capturing the boy’s innocence and optimistic but offbeat view of the world. Its honesty comes shining through and it cuts like a knife. There’s real chemistry between him and Watkins as the brothers, while there’s a lighter tone to his scenes with Paige. That relationship that doesn’t quite have the same ring of truth, but it’s more down to the writing of Annabell’s character than the acting.
This is Joe Stephenson’s feature film debut, and it’s an impressive one. It’s not a film that grabs you immediately, but it’s not long before you find yourself drawn in to the story and it’s most definitely worth sticking with. It doesn’t just give us Stephenson as a talent to watch out for. There’s Chambers as well, who is outstanding and utterly memorable. Remember the names.
Chicken is released in cinemas on Friday, 20 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 19 May.
There are three special screenings of the film in London on opening day, hosted by Sir Ian McKellan, and a further one on Sunday, 22 May, presented by Noel Clarke. Picturehouse Cinemas are also showing the film on Tuesday, 21 June. Check out the film’s website for more.