Review: Joe Stephenson’s Chicken
June 9, 2016
On Tuesday 31st I went along to the forever magical and beautiful gem that is the Hyde Park Picture House to catch first-time director Joe Stephenson’s debut film Chicken.
Having watched the trailer and done some google-ing, I thought I had a general idea about what the film would be exploring. But, honestly, nothing prepared me for the intensely emotionally charged hour and a half that was to follow. At the end of the screening I spoke to Stephenson, who asked me whether I thought the trailer was revelatory enough of the harrowing nature of the film; I said no, I didn’t think so. I then told him that this is precisely why the film is so astonishing. The beauty lies in the unexpected, in the moments of raw, painful humanity that are unearthed as the film progresses. At times, this rawness teeters on the unbearable, and I think the second half could have perhaps been a little less focused on the shock-factor that comes from a revelation about Richard’s (Scott Chambers) past – one which I won’t spoil.
However, rather than this being a criticism, it is a homage to Stephenson’s ambition when making the film. It is rare to see a first-time director tackle so many issues in one go; learning difficulties, familial breakdown, extreme poverty and societal injustice are pivotal to the film. And yet, crucially, they are not made the focal point. Instead, we see a blossoming friendship grow between Richard and Annabell (Yasmin Paige), one which comes at the cost of (or perhaps by virtue of) Richard’s dangerous and deteriorating relationship with his brother Polly (Morgan Watkins). I found this progression to be rather rushed and Paige’s performance disappointingly static in the face of Chambers’ superb portrayal of Richard’s character. Chambers achieves the perfect balance between a child-like naivety and a dogged determination and kindness, the combination of which result in the establishment of a beautiful affinity between his character and the audience. His physicality is perfect and his use of voice and tone equally so, especially given the fact that he is playing a character with unspecified learning difficulties, a task which could have resulted in a two-dimensional, patronizing performance. Perhaps it is down to Chambers’ strength – which isn’t quite matched by Paige – or the fault of the script itself, but I found the portrayal of Richard and Annabell’s friendship to be a little superficial.
The scenes between Chambers and Watkins are undeniably the strongest, Watkins’ portrayal of Polly achieving what many actors cannot; his character is violent and deplorable, and yet Watkins manages to keep a hold of the audience’s sympathy and affections throughout. This adds to the somewhat uncomfortable watching experience by denying the audience the ability to simply shun one character favour of the other. Instead, we are forced to exist in a liminal space which is reflective of the space Richard and Polly themselves inhabit. The chicken comes to represent this, functioning as a medium via which the audience is granted a window into Richard’s mind.
The success of the film is also reliant on Eben Bolter’s cinematography, and his ability to capture the sweeping beauty of the natural landscape in juxtaposition with the desolate appearance of the caravan. It is almost impossible to fathom the fact that the entire thing was filmed without the aid of a full film-set or camera crew, and in only nineteen days.
To achieve such raw, intense emotion, and to cover such a breadth of narrative in this time scale is ridiculously impressive. As is the fact that Stephenson and his crew have done this with very little funding and support, touring independent cinemas following the film’s premiere at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. Chicken should be seen as a beacon of hope to all young aspiring film-makers; if you have a story to tell and the people to tell it with, then this is proof that it can be done!
Check out the trailer here and make sure to find out when Chicken is on at a cinema near you.