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Addicted To Sheep – Review


Release Date: 28th August 2015
Director: Magali Pettier
Writer: Magali Pettier
Cast: Tom Hutchinson - Kay Hutchinson



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Posted November 27, 2015 by

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Addicted to Sheep Review:

Magali Pettier’s debut feature charts a year in the life of Tom and Kay Hutchinson and their three children, as they strive to breed the ideal Swaledale sheep. Raised on a farm in Brittany, Pettier had originally planned to explore the similarities and differences between French and English farming, but revised the project to concentrate on this one family and the practice of tenant farming, an alien concept in France and a notion that she found to be rather medieval.

Pettier shot sixty-two hours of footage over eighteen months, so this eighty-five minute edit is a real labour of love. Starting just before Christmas, as snow blankets the North Pennines, the film wastes no time throwing the audience into the muck! We meet Tom Hutchinson first, as he explains what makes for a good tup (it’s yows and tups in County Durham, not ewes and rams). This he does by pointing out the defects on a tethered specimen. The tup in question, we’re reliably informed, has too narrow a head, not enough hair on its brow, wide horns, and less than ideal colouring. We see the family up at dawn, their frosted breath and ruddy skin making the biting cold palpable, even in the comfort of a warm cinema. Tom and Kay’s three children, Jack, Esme, and Hetty all have their unenviable tasks to perform. They shovel piles of sloppy dung in the cow shed with no signs of squeamishness, although little Hetty does remark – not unreasonably – that maybe the cows should clean up after themselves.

As spring thaws the fells, Pettier explores the triumphs and tribulations of lambing season. In one memorable sequence, Kay struggles to help a yow give birth while whistling and yelping instructions to one of the family’s working dogs, still tending the flock out of shot. The camera lingers unflinchingly on the miserable creature and Kay, streaked with blood and literally up to her elbows in it! Tom and the children come to help, but the fight to be born proves too much for the lamb. There’s a sense of sadness for the lost sheep and the profit it might have turned, but no room for sentimentality as Tom unceremoniously dumps the tiny corpse into a bucket and attempts to pass off a motherless lamb as the newborn, smearing it in gore to disguise its scent. Kay and the children look on, then head off for breakfast, appetites unaffected by the morning’s events.

In another scene, Tom has to saw off a tup’s horn. He stems the flow of blood with moss (nature’s bandage, although cobwebs also work apparently), and explains that in the wild, it would have grown into the sheep’s face and killed it. Indeed, Tom and Kay’s addiction to Swaledales seems to be anchored around the fact that sheep are notoriously difficult to keep alive. At one point, the couple muse (with his characteristic mix of exasperation and resignation and her chirpiness) that sheep seemingly have one ambition from birth, and that is to die as quickly as possible. Perhaps it’s the challenge of rearing a fine example to maturity that keeps their interest piqued?

As well as the hard graft, we are also treated to moments of triumph, such as the farm show where the Hutchinsons clean up, earning ten trophies with thirteen sheep. Kay and the children are visibly delighted and while Tom is more understated, he exudes a quiet sense of pride.

Pride is one of the main themes of this documentary. The daily grind and harsh realities of farm life are interspersed with interviews with the children at the local school, which the Hutchinson siblings attend. While the youngsters are encouraged to explore other career options, most of them can’t imagine life away from the Pennines, and seem keen to stay in the family business. Many of them have old heads on young shoulders, and this provides lovely moments of humour. In one scene, Jack explains the process for breeding desirable qualities in sheep, tripping over the word ‘tup’ as he uses it as a noun and a verb.

Addicted to Sheep Review

Young Esme, however, confesses that she might not be cut out for farming, and longs to be an artist. Her appreciation for the beauty of the landscape is mirrored in Pettier’s painterly aesthetic, as she presents the countryside in a series of tableaux that could have been composed by William Holman Hunt or described in a poem by Thomas Hardy. In fact, there is a timeless quality about this film. It serves as a record of a way of life that has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. This is apparent in the way the children work and paint and play outside. They are in touch with the seasons and respectful of their food and where it comes from. There’s not an iPhone in sight. It’s highlighted by quiet shots of Tom dozing in a chair, too tired to make it upstairs to bed.

Addicted to Sheep cast

The changing of the seasons, that visible passage of time, gives Addicted to Sheep a sense of melancholy, and also illustrates the eternal cycle of birth, life, and death without being cloying. The love the Hutchinsons clearly have for each other and for the land is tangible, and is ultimately what makes this such an engaging piece of work. Educational, moving, funny, and brutal by turns, it’s a slice of life depicted in all its bloody, visceral, shit-smeared glory.


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Katie Young
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