Nearly a decade on from its release in 1996, Coky Giedroyc's debut feature finds its way to DVD courtesy of Freemantle Home Entertainment. The film centre's itself around the life of Stella (Kelly Macdonald), a teenage prostitute working under the wing of the odious Mr. Peters (James Bowlam). Stella longs to escape from her miserable existence in London, and along with drug addict partner Eddie (Hans Matheson) she attempts a fresh start back in her home city of Glasgow. Unfortunately for Stella, she learns that with change comes a hefty price, and that a past that has shaped her life so far is not so easy to run away from. 'Stella Does Tricks' is a difficult film to reach a definitive assessment of. On the one hand it deserves plaudits for approaching some difficult and contentious subjects (drug abuse, sexual violence, homelessness) and at least attempting a genuine and sincere meditation on them. Unfortunately however, Giedroyc lacks the ability to reign in her volatile subject matter and mould it into a tangible and effective film. What are we left with instead is a movie that ultimately lacks the strength of its convictions, a film that is weighed down by its issues as opposed to being ignited by them. 'Stella' starts off reasonably well. London's underbelly is effectively realised and the story builds nicely. Once we reach about the hour mark however, things start to unravel. Where the film should be hitting its stride and finding another gear, it falters and dawdles. The intensity and vitality which characterises the opening gives way to a more brooding and laboured last third as the narrative gradually runs out of steam. It's no coincidence that James Bowlam appears predominantly in the opening half. His performance as Mr. Peters emits chillingly restrained menace and is as far away from good old Terry Collier in 'The Likely Lads' as you could possibly imagine. Giedroyc's film is a slight little piece, and ultimately this lets it down. The narrative has a tendency to drift by (sporadically brought to life by occasionally clunky fantasy and flashback), and the director lacks the assured hand to pin down and craft the story arc to an entirely satisfactory conclusion. Characters come and go without any real development; only Stella is painted in any more than broad strokes. Stella's acts of revenge against her oppressors never really carry the cathartic charge we would hope for, because their crimes and characters are never explored in detail. The film has the style of a TV production (the score's repeated motif could have came straight from an early nineties cop show staring Jimmy Nail or John Nettles), and perhaps the story could have been more suited to that format. Ultimately the film seems to struggle to find a voice and a purpose in being. It paints a desperate picture of the underbelly of society, but doesn't really teach us anything the viewer didn't know already. It allows us to observe these characters, but the script never attempts to uncover the reasons behind it all, the people behind the character roles of prostitute, drug-addict, pimp. There is no light to counterbalance the darkness of the experience, and no really successful attempt to find one. 'Stella Does Tricks' is an unusual film, full of ideas yet lacking the conviction to explore and exploit them. Its heart is in the right place, but ultimately it stands as a missed opportunity. The underdeveloped characters and meandering storyline bring down what has the potential to be an engrossing and provocative piece of work. The performances of the leads are uniformly impressive however, and this ensures the film is never less than watchable, even if the finished product never comes close to equalling the sum of its parts.
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