This year’s Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature, handed out at the Edinburgh Film Festival, went to Nick Whitfield’s debut Skeletons, and it was an inspired choice for the prize. This eccentric blend of science fiction, mystery and black comedy, both directed and written by Whitfield , manages the seemingly impossible feat of melding a Hollywood high concept idea to the visual style of a European arthouse movie whilst retaining a distinctly British core, and it does all that on a shoestring. If you can imagine Charlie Kaufman writing Inception with Laurel and Hardy in the lead roles and some loose change for a budget, then you’re in the right ballpark as to how Skeletons comes across.
Expanded from an eleven minute short, Skeletons tells the tale of Bennett and Davis, played by longtime comedy partners Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan, as a pair of memory exorcists hired to track down a missing person, with unforeseen consequences for their clients and themselves.. These psychic retrieval operatives are employed by the Viridical company to remove long buried skeletons from peoples closets using little more than some very Heath Robinsonesque equipment, a fire extinguisher, some safety goggles and a pair of mysterious stones. Bennett, a diligent but bumbling gentle giant and Davis,a diminutive antagonistic loose cannon, are bogged down with personal issues that threaten to undermine their friendship and damage their work reputations.. Whilst Bennett is a stickler for professionalism and pre-occupied with keeping Davis on track, his partner is a troubled maverick who ‘glow chases’ – the self administering of ‘the procedure’, a dangerous and destructive habit – to try to exhume his own demons. These two mismatched but entirely co-dependent partners possess no high tech gadgetry to aid their work, instead they rely on pencil drawings to identify their clients houses and their own two feet to get them there. Set in an unspecified time and place, this could be a parallel world or a hidden England existing somewhere between rural idyll and supernatural purgatory. On paper Skeletons really shouldn’t work, its ambitions far outweigh the means available to pull it off, but it does work, and work beautifully. Skeletons is an intelligent, funny, touching and highly original exploration of loss, love, memory and guilt.
Whitfield’s sharp script places the emphasis on the interactions between the pair and the supporting cast (including a great turn by Jason Isaacs as the Colonel, their decidedly strange and enigmatic boss), as opposed to attempting a CGI extravaganza; a smart move that more than makes up for the budgetary restrictions. With a mixture of tight narrative structuring, clever editing and inventive art direction Whitfield’s movie is best seen with as little pre-knowledge as possible as it regularly flies off in unexpected directions. The soundtrack by Simon Whitfield, alternating between gypsy folk and mournful strings, wouldn’t be out of place in an Emir Kusturica film and is as essential to the overall feel of Skeletons as the action on the screen. The eccentricities of the script are surreal, offbeat and always pleasantly surprising, the bureaucracy involved in the risk assessment of each case for instance is both Kafkaesque and Pythonesque; the endless forms backed up with a bizarre list of questions for prospective clients which includes ‘have you ever assisted in a surgical amputation?…And have you ever seen a bear?’.
Whitfield’s movie is a striking riposte to the endless parade of expensive costume dramas, mainstream comedies and grim social realist polemics that British cinema generally produces. This anti-Inception proves that with the right combination of ingenuity, originality and independent spirit the lack of a mega budget or marquee cast can actually work in a film’s favour, and the little gem that is Skeletons is the proof. Recommended.