The legendary French director Francois Truffaut once claimed that there was an "incompatibility between the words "British" and "Cinema." To be fair, since the British film industry's inception, it has done little to prove him wrong. Bar the array of angry 'kitchen sink', social realist dramas in the late fifties and early sixties, no cinematic movement has been born in Britain. Recent films like Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and Shane Meadows' This Is England prove that there is a cinematic Britain out there waiting to be harnessed, and now first-time director Nick Whitfield emerges as another talent with his highly original magic realist, metaphysical comedy-drama, Skeletons.
Exploiting the magical in the mundane and the mundane in the magical, Whitfield's film follows the adventures of two lumpy exorcists of the soul: sarcastic wildcard Davis (Ed Gaughan) and mummy's boy Bennett (Andrew Buckley), who move up and down the Peak District helping people extract and overcome their secrets. To do this, the not so dynamic duo fill in some forms, wield a magical gizmo at the client's closet, through which they enter the subconscious to discover and expunge troublesome memories.
Their lives change completely when they're sent to exorcise the memories of a family whose father mysteriously disappeared eight years earlier. Single mother Jane struggles with mute daughter Rebecca and neglected son Jojo, which draws Bennett ever-closer to the struggling brood. Meanwhile, Davis becomes ever reliant on his own memories to pull him through his unhappiness. With both their jobs and their very existences on the line, can the troubled twosome solve the mystery behind the family's malaise?
The chemistry between lead actors Ed Gaughan and Andrew is quite something and their duologues make for some brilliantly funny, eminently quotable and highly literate exchanges that get close to Withnail and I levels of quality - no mean feat. Gaughan is a real find; his delivery and timing is impeccable and he always finds the right beats in every scene. Buckley is incredibly sympathetic and a real gentle giant, the straight man to Gaughan's funny man. Most surprisingly, relatively big star Jason Isaacs proves very adept in a small but memorable role as the boy's domineering mentor, even stealing a couple of scenes with his bizarre behaviour.
Skeletons' ultra low budget magic realism taps into a quintessentially British literary tradition that hasn't been successfully exploited since the heyday of Powell and Pressburger. Asking big questions with warmth and sincerity without descending into mawkish schmaltz, films about the nature of memory and identity might not be thin on the ground, but few can compete with Whitfield's (first) masterpiece.