There are not many films which can make you feel horrified, shocked, moved and delighted all at once; or can make the most selfish, hurtful person a figure of pity. However, Chicken, from first-time director Joe Stephenson, is one of those films; it grabs hold of you and just won’t let go.
Set in the countryside around the Essex town of Colchester, Chicken focuses on Richard, 15, who lives with his older brother Polly in a caravan on a scrap of farmland. Richard is a sweet young man, and his learning difficulties give him a naive view of life. We follow him as he goes about his daily business; pulling vegetables for dinner, exploring the farm, looking after his beloved chicken – and constant companion – Fiona.
However, as bucolic as these scenes are, they belie the harshness of the itinerant brothers. With a new land-owner trying to push them off the land, and complications from Polly trying to get work, Richard’s life is about to come crashing down.
The film is exquisitely photographed; never has the East Anglian countryside looked as beautiful as it does under Richard’s tatty trainers as he raids a field. Stephenson gives us a wonderfully detailed tale of the lad’s life, and in the hands of a lesser artist the intricate shots of grass, food, chicken, and caravan would become dull. However, with Stephenson they are moments of innocence and simplicity of Richard’s life painted on the screen.
The music accompanying the vignette of Richard is delicate, beautiful yet poignant; reminiscent of the best of country poets who mimic the lark and the breeze yet tell of harsh winters ahead.
Of course, life in the country isn’t always blue skies and skipping through fields. Richard has a strange habit of collecting road kill, then dressing up the stiff little creatures and arranging them in a tea party in the barn. The close shots of the dead animals, together with a culled pig in a farm outbuilding; and, finally, Fiona’s death at the hands of a fox are not for the squeamish, but they add a healthy dose of realism that jolts us out of the rustic splendour; much as Richard’s life is jolted out of its tranquillity by the events overtaking him.
Scott Chambers as Richard is enchanting; vulnerable and shy with an innocence which makes you want to wrap him up in a blanket with a cup of hot tea. Chambers never loses the track of playing a character with difficulties; his every movement, every blink and step is nuanced.
Yasmin Paige plays Annabel, Richard’s new friend and the landowner’s daughter. Paige puts her heart entirely into the role, and as it takes a while for us to realise if she is truly friend or foe; her subtleties of character are carried with perfection.
It should be said that Chambers is a native of this particular part of Essex, as is Freddie Machin, the playwright who first brought Chicken to life. Chambers was starring in this production at the Southwark Playhouse where Stephenson’s production company, B Good Pictures, found him and the play. The film is at one with its surroundings and there’s not a thing out of place, even the slang is perfect.
Morgan Watkins is suitably brash and neglectful in his role as Polly, yet for all his shouting and ill treatment of Richard the love is there for all to see, hidden behind a shroud of pain and abandonment.
The pivotal scene in the film involves Richard getting very badly beaten up (I won’t say by whom), for a simple misunderstanding. It is there, I think, that Richard realises for the first time how very alone he is. Annabel takes Richard into her farmhouse for refuge, and Richard’s good, kind heart is open for all to see as he gratefully accepts her kindness.
There is a moment in the film which allows Richard to cut all ties with the life he knew, his brother and their shared history. This scene allows Richard to move on and rid himself of the stain of his previous life, and makes Richard truly “clean” and free.
Chicken is a film unlike any other I have seen; the three young actors are superbly talented and the writing is touching without being melodramatic. The film moves along just quick enough to keep us interested, without dwelling too much on the joyful or the sombre. We are always on edge, wondering what will happen next.
Chicken is pure art in film form, and the poignant growing-up story of a gentle lad dragged into the harshness of the world is one that will stay with you. Richard and his beloved Chicken will not easily be forgotten.