Saturday 3 July 2010

Secret agents: "Skeletons"

There were rumblings and grumblings about the standard of much of the British fare at the recent Edinburgh Film Festival, but surely not about Nick Whitfield's Skeletons, the eventual winner of this year's Michael Powell Award for best homegrown production: a small polished gem that ploughs its own individualistic furrow for 96 minutes, then lingers in your head and heart for days afterwards.

Best of all: it couldn't, surely, have been made anywhere else, because at its centre is a very British double act. Following in the grand tradition of Flanders and Swann, Julian and Sandy, Eric and Ernie, Vic and Bob, and Ant and Dec, we now have Davis (Ed Gaughan), the uptight, wiry one, and the chubby, more empathetic Bennett (Andrew Buckley). For a fee, this pair will come round and clean out the skeletons in your closet - literally: like the healer John Coffey in Stephen King's The Green Mile, these two men possess a gift that allows them to enter into their clients' past and hoover up any indiscretions they might find there, in the interests of fostering greater honesty between persons.

The film begins with Davis lauding Rasputin for the consistency the otherwise mad monk maintained between his public and private personae, and what follows will teach him how hard, if not impossible, it is to fully compartmentalise; that there will always be some form of psychic slippage. There is an obvious personality clash between Davis and Bennett - the latter determined to reach out to his clients emotionally, the other withholding, keener simply to get the job done - and their personal and professional relationship will be placed under further strain when they're assigned the case of a single mum (Paprika Steen) living with a sullen, unresponsive daughter (Tuppence Middleton) in a house that sits on an abandoned "corpse road" - the morbid equivalent of a leyline, perhaps.

As our heroes shuttle between assignments - and one drizzly, underpopulated corner of the Fens to the next - in rattly old 1980s railstock, Whitfield begins to set out a funny-surreal bureaucracy of secrets, and observes what happens when human emotion begins to inch its way up the chain of command. Given that what these literally secret agents are collecting is the intangible, impossible to nail down, it seems doubly absurd that Davis should insist on having every full-stop on the signing contracts be properly initialled - and let's say hello to Jason Isaacs, turning up in a flat cap and comedy 'tache as the pair's boss, "The Colonel", trailing rumours the organisation is set to sign a lucrative deal with the Saxe-Coburgs ("Imagine the filth!").

The whole film is what one might call off to its advantage, and never more so than in its casting. It's a tremendous surprise to see Danish Dogme veteran Steen embodying a brisk country wife who seems to have real trouble making small talk. (She'd rather move on to address this family's bigger issues, you sense.) Buckley, who had a minor role on TV's Extras and could pass for Stephen Merchant's pudgier brother, is terrifically gentle as an affectionate stay-at-home who's used his gift to avoid what would surely have been his true calling in life: assistant bank manager. Gaughan, meanwhile, has arrived at the genius conclusion that nothing is funnier than someone saying "eppy" in a Norfolk accent - except when circumstances contrive to leave Davis speaking Bulgarian, at which point we might ourselves conclude the film's drollery is less East Anglian than Eastern European.

Certainly, the strangeness is such that Skeletons never allows itself the chance to fall into a rut of familiarity, although I spotted faint echoes of Paul Auster's novel "The Music of Chance" (and Philip Haas's screen adaptation thereof) - another yarn fusing together metaphors and metaphysics, charting the influence of our past on our present courses - particularly when Steen begins digging up her back garden in the hope of laying her absent hubby's ghost to rest. Comedy this subtly left-of-centre - not quirky, just uncanny - always risks alienating those (and there will be those) who won't get it, but it's a hugely confident debut, leaping from one reality to the next in such a way as to maintain not just narrative but emotional coherence, and strikingly shot by Zac Nicholson on the broadest of widescreen canvasses. I loved it.

Skeletons is on selected release.

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