Skeletons (2010)

First published by Film4


Synopsis: Nick Whitfield’s feature debut is an eccentric blend of high-concept miracle, Northern mundanity – and Bulgarian voices.

Review: When we first meet Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley), they are discussing the moral transparency of Rasputin as they traverse the Yorkshire dales on foot, dressed in somewhat scruffy business suits and carrying matching briefcases. Their cross-country journey is introduced by the intense strains of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares ““ a soundtrack choice that may at first appear bizarrely incongruous, but will soon make a mad sort of sense, in a film where “going Bulgarian” turns out to be a genuine occupational hazard.

And what precisely is their occupation? To all appearances, they might be Jehovah’s witnesses, or a comedy double-act, or a pair of Beckett anti-heroes, and in a sense they are all three – although the first act of Nick Whitfield’s Skeletons takes much delight in mystifying the precise nature of who they are and what they do. It will turn out (minor spoiler alert) that Davis and Bennett are psychic auditors for a shadowy outfit called Veridical. They are ghost busters, so to speak, for the living, using their natural gifts – and some analogue-era gadgetry – to ‘extract’ emotional debris, literally (and metaphorically) emptying their clients’ closets of buried secrets and guilty memories (“other people’s spunk and betrayals”, as Davis puts it). They are also disgruntled company men with deep-seated problems of their own.

Warm-hearted Bennett wishes that his job confronting clients with home truths left a bit more room for aftercare – while the more cynical-seeming Davis is in fact a little boy lost, preferring to retreat, junkie-like, into the comfort of a childhood memory than to engage with real people in the present. Assigned by their boss the Colonel (Jason Isaacs) to locate a family man who vanished eight years ago, the two colleagues find themselves drawn into the fractured lives of those whom this missing person has left behind – his eccentric, haunted wife Jane (Paprika Steen), young neglected son Jojo (Josef Whitfield) and mute 21-year-old daughter Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton). The case will prove to be far from routine, and will force Davis and Bennett to question whether they would prefer to join the Colonel’s ‘A-Team’, or to pursue their own dreams for the future.

With its psychic agents and metempsychotic journeys, Skeletons may sound like the very definition of high concept, but here the most miraculous of events are presented in the most mundane of manners. The Yorkshire setting, accent and dialect, the rural locations, and the workaday banter between Davis and Bennett, all hilariously undercut the sense that anything out of the ordinary is happening, as does Whitfield’s game eschewal of anything resembling conventional exposition, so that the two men’s uncanny profession comes to be taken for granted by us as much as by the film, and everything is reduced to a familiar, domesticated level of shabby if vital banality.

Even the supposedly menacing figure cut by the Colonel is undone by the homely vernacular of his opening line (“alright, moosh”) and by the flat cap that he constantly sports, while the pair’s powers are presented through in-camera trickery and clever editing rather than spectacular special effects or CGI, in a manner that is as pleasingly lo-fi as the equipment used by Davis and Bennett in their work.

“We don’t do 3D stuff, you know that, our domain starts at 4”, the Colonel reminds Davis at one point ““ but Whitfield always keeps his focus steadily on the human dimension, foregrounding his characters’ all-too-real flaws and foibles. The result is a quirkily comic drama about love and loss, where the sci-fi/fantasy elements actually serve, rather than distract from, the human story, offering us a highly visual route into the normally hidden psychological realms of characterisation.

The film’s nearest analogues are Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (2007), but Skeletons is a true original ““ and with its pitch-perfect performances, surreal streak of humour, strong sense of place and poignant notes of melancholy, Whitfield’s feature debut might just be the finest cult film to have come from Britain since Withnail and I (1987). That is high praise indeed.

In a nutshell: This bleakly comic high-concept psychodrama about family, memory and grief defies easy categorisation or summary – but missing it would be your loss.

Anton Bitel