Tuesday, 17 August 2010

'Skeletons' review: An amiable and gently amusing British comedy...

Last week I hosted a Q&A with Nick Whitfield, the writer and director of the low budget British black comedy 'Skeletons'. The film won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and stars two relative unknowns, Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan. The duo play a pair of professionals whose job is to investigate the skeletons in their clients (literal) closet. But the pair have their own difficulties with the work, as Buckley's Bennett gets too empathetic towards his clients (whose vices range from secretive Latin dance lessons to use of prostitutes), whilst Gaughan's Davis is "on the glow" (addicted to using the procedure to revisit his own past) - a fact the duo must disguise from their boss, the Colonel, played by Jason Isaacs, in a spirited and memorable turn as a gruff Yorkshireman.

The first feature film from Whitfield, 'Skeletons' is a beneficiary of UK Film Council funding, without which the film would never have been made, according to the director. Shot on location across the Midlands, the film is primarily set in the countryside as the besuited protagonists walk from job to job. The film's best moments occur during this walking, as Davis talks about such topics as the lack of moral ambiguity surrounding Rasputin. The interplay between the two leads is funny and Gaughan in particular is really watchable. Written with the two actors in mind, the dialogue and characters are perfectly suited to these actors. The film feels something like a cross between 'Ghostbusters' and 'Alan Partridge' - mixing the spiritual and paranormal with the mundane and the regional.

There are instances where the comedy misfires slightly, with a tired, sub-Chuckle Brothers exchange of "you're unprofessional", "no you're unprofessional", "no you're being unprofessional" being among the less successful moments. But generally the film is gently amusing throughout, even if never side-splittingly hilarious. That may sound like faint praise for a comedy film, but 'Skeletons' gets along fine with these gentle laughs of approval, with its pleasant and amiable tone. It is also uncommonly ambitious and fantastical for a low budget British feature. There is no gritty, kitchen sink realism here as we plunge into territory not too dissimilar from that recently mined in Christopher Nolan's (much bigger budgeted) 'Inception': not only in its premise, but in its fascination with the nature of reality and with Davis' character mirroring DiCaprio's Dom Cobb as he finds himself haunted by the past.

It is refreshing to encounter a film of this modest means which isn't frightened to tackle the imagination and isn't afraid to get quite abstract and surreal (it is a film where an accident can turn you Bulgarian and a man can live in a rusty old landlocked boat next to a power station). With 'Skeletons' Whitfield also shows that he is not shy about combining this humour and inventiveness with genuine emotion - the film ultimately being about loss and acceptance. 'Skeletons' is not perfect, but it is a pleasing and intriguing debut film from a writer and director with a unique voice in British cinema, and perhaps it forecasts something wonderful for the future. If he can get the funding. Let us hope that the demise of the UK Film Council does not put a premature end to this emerging talent.

'Skeletons' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is still touring the country accompanied by its director, Nick Whitfield, who is doing Q&As at selected Picturehouse cinemas. A full write up on the Q&A will appear on this blog during the week.

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