I think this is one of my films of the year and it is a delight to find a small British independent film which, without any studio backing or major stars, more than holds its own. My only slight concern is that as part of the very strong critical welcome it has been dubbed a ‘cult film’. The tragedy is that audiences are now so cowed by conventional tastes that a film like this is assumed to be far outside the mainstream when in fact it is funny, warm and hugely enjoyable. Or perhaps it’s just me? I’ve seen references to David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Withnail and I – none of which do much for me and Ghostbusters which also seems wrong in tone. Charlie Kaufman I understand, but he’s too American. This is a very English film (despite Lottery Funding channeled through Scottish Screen – I don’t quite understand that unless it has something to do with EIFF) and I thought it was more a cross between the 1960s/70s Avengers TV series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, M. R. James and Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns. But even that’s not quite right. It isn’t a genre film as such but there is a strong element of gothic ghost story and British science fiction. It is being called a comedy, but I think that the comic elements are always there in certain kinds of British horror/science fiction.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Two unprepossessing characters march through a British upland landscape (the Peak District – the film is produced through EM Media) dressed in black suits and carrying small brown suitcases – the type used by craftsman to carry their tools in the 1950s. They visit remote houses and perform some kind of service – all the while discussing the death of Rasputin. As Nick pointed out after the screening we only really find out what they do after about 20 minutes or so. In the meantime we learn more about their intimate but slightly tense relationship in which Davis is the irritable and more adventurous partner and Bennett is more steady. As the title suggests their job involves the ‘skeletons in the closet’ found in many houses. The location of events is never revealed and the period setting is not defined – clothes and decor are not ‘now’ and the pair travel by train (clearly a preserved railway giving the feel of 1950s/1960s Britain). The pair’s boss is a stereotypical sergeant-major type ironically known as the ‘Colonel’ and played with vigour by Jason Isaacs. In the second half of the film, the pair are given a new job which plunges them into a family situation, prompting rather more self-reflection than appears to be good for them. But rest assured, there is a satisfactory outcome.
Writer-director Nick Whitfield comes from an acting background and he certainly handles the cast very well. The camerawork is accomplished and the images of British landscape look very good in ‘Scope. I do wish more directors/cinematographers would use ‘Scope and ignore what it’s going to look like on TV. There is a slight sense in which the film does feel like a first time effort – perhaps some of the framings and compositions are just too textbook perfect that they seem to stand out. Research suggests that Whitfield has no specific training and his DoP Zac Nicholson is an experienced operator gradually getting bigger jobs as DoP so perhaps my analysis makes sense? This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The project was well worth supporting (it began with a short film in 2007 using the same material) and presumably the extra support helped bring in experienced actors Jason Isaacs (something of a cult figure in British Cinema it seems) and Danish Dogme veteran Paprika Steen. I knew that I had seen Paprika Steen before, but I didn’t make the connection before looking her up. What a great casting choice – she gives the character just the faintest sense of ‘oddness’. The two leads are stand-up comedians, but Buckley also has a long list of UK television credits. I hope they both get more film roles on these performances.
The other main character is played by Tuppence Middleton who made a big impression in last year’s British ‘high school horror’ movie Tormented (which was also produced by Forward Films). She’s good again here in a rather different role and next up she is one of the teens in Nakata Hideo’s English language Chatroom. I predict big things for Ms Middleton if she gets the right parts in the next stage of her career.
Inevitably perhaps, Skeletons is being discussed as this year’s Moon, following success at Edinburgh in winning the Michael Powell Award and also encouraging festival appearances in the US. However, I’m not sure that distributor Soda Pictures has got the muscle to exploit the good audience responses that the film has garnered. When I checked the official box office figures, I found a single print of the film had been released on July 2nd and then the film just disappeared from the charts (the UKFC chart is supposed to show all UK films, even when they make only a few pounds). What’s going on? There is a Facebook page for the film and it has clearly played at different specialist cinemas across the country and been enjoyed everywhere. We saw the film in Bradford where it has played just five times on a digital print. This is madness if the audience success is not being properly documented. If this is what happens to decent flicks while lumbering behemoths colonise the multiplexes there isn’t much hope for UK film culture. Grrr!
If Soda manage to get this onto DVD, please buy a copy. Better still, demand that your local cinema show the film on 35mm or 2K digital.
The UK trailer:
You’ll notice the music score – which I enjoyed, but others seem to have found a bit too much.
One last point, the film’s ‘concept’ has something in common with Inception – but it is much better handled!