Stella Does Tricks Review
Stella Does Tricks could be read as a Billy Liar for the Trainspotting generation. The difference here is that the dreams of getting to London are relegated to flashbacks. In other words, we know they’re futile, the fantasy no longer exists and as such we’re left with Stella, a Scottish teen prostitute. Yet whilst the flashbacks may be old and empty as it were, A.L. Kennedy has constructed her screenplay so perfectly that the past and present cannot escape one another. There’s a logic and precision to the structure that makes the tawdry, miserable existence of Stella all the more so; as they intermingle and seemingly mock each other – when not digressing into fantasy that is – they condemn her to an unending circle from which she will never escape.
Director Coky Giedroyc plays her part by going for a visual discretion. We never see Stella at work, so to speak. Rather our own imaginations are held responsible for this, not that they’re left entirely to their own accord. Indeed, the parade of men who populate Stella Does Tricks hardly leave us much licence. Her johns are overweight and middle aged; her pimp demands hand jobs in public and can get gang raped at the drop of a hat; her boyfriend’s a junkie who sells her body for his next fix. Even the characters around the edges – a young Andy Serkis; the father who haunts her memories – are less than savoury characters.
With this male presence, then, comes a terrific sense of violence, or at least the threat of it. Even the most innocuous of moments leaves us on the edge of our seats as the possibility of some danger entering the frame is never far away. Indeed, as a portrait of a woman’s (girl’s?) life this is a remarkably bleak work; stylistically it may hark back to the British new wave in its unassuming, simple nature – and therefore other female-centric works such as A Taste of Honey - but it seems highly unlikely that it’ll provoke pangs or nostalgia in thirty or forty years time.
What it does most definitely share with those films however (except for James Bolam from A Kind of Loving and The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, here playing Stella’s pimp), is a powerful central performance, in this case from Kelly MacDonald in the lead role. The one appealing element in an otherwise uninviting film, she proves to be our way in, indeed only means of access. Not that Stella Does Tricks is an unappealing or repulsive work, rather it’s a difficult and challenging piece. And as with the majority of such works, our hard efforts in connecting with it are amply rewarded.
Another of Fremantle’s releases of old BFI/Channel Four co-productions alongside Madagascar Skin, Stella Does Tricks comes to DVD in a similar form. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio, albeit non-anamorphically. Otherwise, the presentation is fine with the mostly clean print demonstrating only tiny signs of age in the form of minute damage. It also has a slightly bleached out look, though going from memories of having first seen the film near the time of its release, it would appear that this is intentional. As for the soundtrack, this is a similarly pleasing state and demonstrates no technical flaws alongside the requisite clarity. The extras, sadly, are limited to biographies for Giedroyc, MacDonald and Bolam plus a picture gallery seemingly constructed from screen grabs.