“Things don’t happen that cannot be explained, but I think things do happen that aren’t explained,” suggests Charlie Clark (Raph Shirley) in The Darkest Universe. “We do need to prepare ourselves for perhaps never having an explanation.”
“You’re cushioned”, responds Zac Pratt (Will Sharpe), “by your background, which is that you’re an astrophysicist, and tied up with that is quite a lot of unexplained stuff, like: what is inside a black hole? You don’t know, do you?”
The particular black hole that Zac has in mind is the gap left by the disappearance of his sister Alice (Tiani Ghosh, Sharpe’s co-writer on the film), along with her boyfriend – Charlie’s brother – Toby (Joe Thomas), in a narrowboat somewhere along England’s canal system. “A boat does not just vanish into thin air, it’s impossible!”, declares Zac to camera, as he records a video diary for his blog dedicated to the search for Alice. Sharpe’s own film, co-directed with Tom Kingsley, interweaves Zac’s obsessive video ‘postcards’ with flashbacks to the months leading up to Alice’s disappearance, after Zac, at the urging of his own girlfriend Eva (Sophia Di Martino), had invited Alice to move from the London home that they shared into an Islington-moored narrowboat. The film is also punctuated by Zac’s yellow-lit, anxiety-racked nightmares of billowing, barge-borne smoke and alien abductions.
Questions are raised early about Alice’s stability. She has been wrongly labelled by one journalist as “autistic”, much to Zac’s annoyance – but she is undoubtedly “an unusual person”, a feckless, inert misfit, making her a perfect soulmate for the similarly fey Toby. “They both just seemed like holograms,” comments Toby’s father Alan (Chris Langham), “and I think in the end they just became so vague, they disappeared.” It is one, not entirely plausible explanation for what has happened, sitting alongside many others offered, including the police view, articulated early in the film, that sometimes those who disappear simply do not wish to be found. In describing his sister, Zac says, “I used to say, there’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and then there’s Alice. She’s ‘I don’t have any sandwiches at all, what am I doing in a field?'”
The truth is, though, that Zac’s quest will take him further and further from the waterways in and around the metropolis, until in the end he will be the one in a field, wearing a T-shirt whose written slogan ‘Missing’ describes himself as much his sister. For in the absence of Alice, the video diaries bring Zac’s own problems into focus – not just the denial, despondency and desperation that are the typical stages of loss, but also more inveterate issues that adumbrate an alternative explanation for Alice’s mysterious vanishing.
For as Zac gets lost trying to chase Alice down the rabbit-hole, there will turn out to be other black holes in The Darkest Universe: there is the all-consuming hole left in both siblings’ lives by the traumatic death of their mother when they were children; there is the literal black hole that swallows up a family of aliens in the picture book (itself titled The Darkest Universe) that Toby penned as a boy when his own mother was dying of illness; there is the dark canal underpass that Alice and Toby were last seen entering; and there are the more abstract black holes of mental illness whose meandering, shadowy windings Sharpe navigates with such sympathy and subtlety.
As in his debut feature collaboration with Kingsley Black Pond (2011) and his solo TV miniseries Flowers (2016), here Sharpe explores those strange spaces where the comedy of the banal finds itself bordering the gravity of depression, grief, guilt and death. Make no mistake: The Darkest Universe is very funny indeed, but as its title suggests, there is plenty of pain and pathos to counterweigh the humour. While never quite spelling out the full explanation of what has happened, and leaving viewers as much as Zac to believe what they want to believe and to accommodate whatever truth they find the most comforting, it is a sign of Sharpe’s great generosity as a filmmaker that he does ultimately point to a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.
© Anton Bitel