Nick Whitfield’s debut feature film as a director, Skeletons, won the Michael Powell award when it was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival back in 2010. A bizarre black comedy revolving around two psychics working for a shadowy organisation (aren’t all organisations shadowy?) who travel to people’s houses in order to literally remove the ‘skeletons’ from their closets, it’s a promising start to a directing career.
We first meet Davis and Bennett (Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley) as they wander around the countryside, chatting to each other about the minutae of life, travelling from one client to the next. Bennett is a large, friendly ginger-haired man who longs to move out from the maternal home, whereas Davis is a darker, more argumentative character; he’s also a fussy bureaucrat who insists all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed on his official company paperwork, and in the early scenes his awkward fussiness is very amusing. After gaining the necessary consent, it’s this twosome’s job to find out all those awkward personal / family secrets and to lay them out in front of their customers. They do this by opening the clients’ bedroom closets and tapping into their lives, psychically. It isn’t really explained in great depth, but it’s fairly easy to suspend disbelief and go with the plot.
Trouble is, Davis is ‘glow chasing’ in his time off, which means he is tapping into his own unhappy memories using the company’s equipment. When the pair attempt a routine exorcism at a house owned by a middle-aged woman named Jane (Paprika Steen) whose husband disappeared eight years earlier, Bennett develops an attachment to the lady and the remainder of her family. The two psychics struggle to uncover this particular family’s secrets during their stay, and watching over their behaviour is their serious mustachioed manager, referred to simply as ‘The Colonel’ (and played with tongue-in-cheek relish by Jason Isaacs). He becomes increasingly agitated as the job goes on, as his two charges start to lose control of the situation.
If it all sounds a little odd, then that’s simply because it is. Not a criticism, by any means: Skeletons revels in its oddness. But while the overall concept is not a million miles away from a film like Ghostbusters, much of the detail that is added to the basic idea is refreshingly original. It’s a black comedy, and though there is plenty of witty dialogue and even some bizarre and unsettling slapstick, the breezy tone of the opening 20 minutes is replaced by darker middle and final acts, largely due to the presence and actions of Jane’s mute daughter Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton). While the film never tries to occupy the unsettling territory of a scary ghost story, it does have a grim, dramatic edge to it that works well. The shift of mood is expertly handled.
My main problem with the film, though, is that it feels slightly rushed at times, and the script fails to explain why certain things are happening clearly on some occasions as a result. At one point, for example, Bennett and Davis appear to be diverting some kind of spirit path away from Jane’s house, but I might be completely wrong about that; I actually had little ideas as to what was going on for around five minutes. (I generally think I’m OK at following plots that require a little thought and a little cut slack on the part of the viewer, too. Well, unless it’s one of those art-house Michael Bay films, anyway. They’re supposed to be ironic, right?) There’s also an odd sequence later in the film where Davis starts speaking in tongues (Hungarian, I think). Perhaps there’s a reference or an explanation that I missed, but it puzzled me. Still, it’s a film that requires a leap of faith (or maybe just a small step of faith) from the viewer from the very beginning, so while there may be moments of confusion it certainly doesn’t ruin proceedings.
Skeletons looks fantastic – cinematographer Zac Nicholson, who has worked as a camera operator on a variety of British TV shows and films including The King’s Speech, makes the most of the rolling hills, forests, ye olde traditional power plants and rural train stations of the English countryside. It’s actually a joy to watch Davis and Bennett wander from client to client, an oddly mismatched couple in dark suits, bickering and conversing like an old married couple as they traverse fields and wander down country lanes.
The acting is solid, and the cast show a collective conviction and belief in the script, even if there are one or two holes and some of the world’s more irritable, high maintenance actors might well have had one or two tantrums during filming. To make the mumbo-jumbo stick you’ve got to employ actors that do not flinch when they are reeling the lines off. You can clearly see that Isaacs, Gaughan and Buckley are completely committed to the story and the project has been well cast. In fact, all actors involved perform well.
While it has its faults, Skeletons is a promising debut feature. Comparisons upon release with the scripts of Charlie Kaufman are completely wide of the mark, but it certainly has its own freewheeling verve, originality and intelligence to make it worth seeking out if you’re after something a little quirky. Easy on the eye, if a little confusing and disjointed at times, it places Whitfield in the ‘one to watch’ category.
Directed by: Nick Whitfield
Written by: Nick Whitfield
Starring: Andrew Buckley, Ed Gaughan, Tuppence Middleton, Paprika Steen, Jason Isaacs
Running Time: 94 Minutes