Skeletons has eluded me for quite some time. It only had a limited release in the UK so it's been a bit of a bugger to find. It was showing at The End Of The Road festival we attended over the Summer, but the guy running the cinema tent mucked up his timings, so when we turned up the film was halfway over. Grrr. And when it finally came to our local arthouse last weekend I thought we'd miss it then as well as we were at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. But due to unforeseen circumstances (BLOODY DEL TORO CANCELLING!) we didn't go. But every cloud has a silver lining - we got to see this gem instead.
It's a difficult one to describe... I'll have a go. Odd couple and business partners Bennett and Davis (sounds like a Pinter play already!) wander about the country on foot visiting couples and families who want their skeletons exorcised from their 'closets'. Without properly explaining how, the two of them assess the house by means of a EMF meter, and then adorning goggles, open the wardrobe and step into a world of memory - where they are able to see all the hidden, sordid secrets of their clients, and report back to them afterwards. The men have ended up socially reclusive and in the case of Davis, too wrapped up in the world of memory and the past to face the future (now we're into Tennessee Williams territory!). One day, their boss (The Colonel, complete with moustache) sends them on a job to a lonely farmhouse, where a woman is trying to find out what happened to her husband who disappeared eight years earlier, but their case is hampered by the strange mute daughter who doesn't want them to find out the truth (...).
Nick Whitfield's debut film is like a wonderland of so many great styles: The League of Gentlemen, Inception, The Fall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the latter being where all the Charlie Kaufman comparisons have come from) but at the same time is completely original in its own right. Only a bonafide exciting talent would be able to fabricate such a wonderfully engaging and quirky tale from a common phrase. It's tricky to get into at first - the pace is very slow, and there is more emphasis on the petty squabbling of the two protagonists than what they actually do in people's houses. In fact this is consistent throughout the whole film, with memory and regression featuring very little in the film, and more focus on the effect it has on reality. And if you're wondering why people would want their skeletons in the closet dragged up anyway, it's revealed that no-one actually believes they can do it, and certainly not have the audacity to then spill all.
Whilst there are obviously sci-fi elements at work here, the film skims over this and concentrates instead on the characters, and how they are defined by their unearthly day job. Bennett is the realer of the two - not as clever as Davis but hard-working and quietly wanting a family. Davis has become addicted to 'globing' - regressing into an old memory of his parents reading him a bedtime story as a young boy. It seems as if this nostalgic place in time holds more value to him than his own life, where he lives alone in a run down trailer in the middle of a field with only a nuclear power plant for company.
But the darkly curious mood of the whole film means that everybody’s a bit nutty, and Whitfield plays on this superbly, evoking a deep sadness amongst his characters: the wife who has lost her husband digs for him in the garden every day in case she finds him; the daughter has not spoken for three years because she doesn’t know how to tell her mother her father has a new family; The Colonel who within all his barking can’t bear to lose employees who are in fact his only friends. All richly developed with their own tale to tell, this story held aloft by the many layers built of emotion.
I loved how the film was shot as well – in an era almost ageless between Edwardian Britain and the 1940s. I loved the monochromatic brooding horizons and the quiet walks through dead railway tunnels. It’s not often lately that I’ve praised (or even noticed) the cinematography of a film so it was another real treat.
I also now have a massive crush of Tuppence Middleton: what an amazing name, and I want her hair! She was just a big a presence on the screen as a mute than she was when she bursts out in speech at the end of the film. All the unknown actors were great here – a bit like Bunny and the Bull it gives a chance for new talent in British comedy to emerge. Jason Isaacs was also commendable as The Colonel, but it’s not a performance I would put above the rest of the cast.
The chance may have gone now to watch this on the big screen, so make sure to get it on DVD when it comes out in a few weeks. It’s one of the best films to come out of this country in ages, and whilst it’s imaginative, touching and satisfying, it is also very British and is unlikely to be acknowledged anywhere else (more’s the pity). Watch, and spread the word about the glorious Skeletons!