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Branchage 2010: Skeletons – Bringing British Films Out of the Closet
Daniel A Nixon , September 22nd, 2010 13:20

Skeletons, showing this week at the Branchage Film Festival, is a quirky and surreal comedy with a strong, very British pedigree. Daniel Nixon wonders why it’s so hard for the mainstream British film press to promote more homegrown gems like this.

"Hello to Jason Isaacs," is what film critic Mark Kermode says almost every week on his radio show and podcast. Invariably this is a routine acknowledgement of some minor press coverage or email pertaining to Jason, an old school chum. Yet a few months ago, one got the impression Kermode was using what is usually a jokey address more purposefully. Isaacs was on the show to promote independent British film Skeletons, in which he stars.

Isaacs’ appearances on Kermode’s programme are usually full of friendly bantering, in-jokes and mutual backslapping. But here Isaacs was keen to emphasise the importance of the work in front of them, marshaling all lines of enquiry back to the quality of the film and its upcoming tour dates (Skeletons is yet to receive a UK-wide release, but will be touring the country again after its screening at the Branchage Film Festival this weekend). Those that follow the mainstream film press would have noted that this was not his only interview at the time with the sole purpose of advertising his latest feature.

These types of interviews tend to disappoint, full of a sense that the interviewee is on autopilot and their only real concern is the project’s financial success and their career trajectory. With Skeletons there was a marked difference, an added sincerity, and for good reason: it is a clever, witty and highly original British film that represents something of a breakthrough for exciting comedy double act Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan. But it was the gravitational pull of Isaacs’s star that was able to create buzz around the picture, and as a result it got somewhere near the coverage it deserved. That it took so much time and effort on Isaacs’s part to make sure this was the case is perhaps indicative of the mainstream British film press’ reluctance to seriously engage with projects that run outside of the obvious group of (predominantly Hollywood-populated) press screenings laid on by the big distributors. Without the promise of junket time with a celebrity of Isaacs’ renown, Skeletons would have been lucky to get 100 words in the national newspapers. Indeed, Skeletons has not been the only independent British film this year forced to rely on the hard work of its bankable star for exposure: Andy Serkis performed a similar door-to-door act with unconventional Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. This ambivalence towards homegrown talent can only be detrimental to our already fragile national cinema.

Normally it is only British films with an in-built audience that can gather this kind of interest. Earlier in the year both Paul King’s Bunny and the Bull and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Cemetery Junction garnered significant media coverage in no small part due to the following gained from previous television work: The Mighty Boosh and The Office / _Extras respectively (Andrew Buckley coincidently stars in Extras as Gobbler). This is all well and good, but it hardly represents taking a risk, and it is not exactly like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant suffer from under-exposure. Perhaps the British media (and indeed audiences themselves) should be slightly more proactive in seeking out new British films. With an industry in a state of uncertainty, the press should be doing everything it can to get behind talented new filmmakers, to protect what has been over the years a rich and distinct industry. We should be supporting films that embrace our cinematic traditions and display our own particular national identity.

Skeletons is itself a very British picture. This can patently be seen in the relationship between the two leads. There are clear parallels to be drawn between great British double acts from both film and television: there is certainly something of both the Morecambe and Wise and the Laurel and Hardy about Bennett (Buckley) and Davis (Gaughan)’s dynamic, and then there is an obvious analog to make - especially with the almost pastoral countryside setting - with Withnail and I. Two darkly comic characters arriving at a remote house to investigate bizarre goings on also brings to mind the work of Harold Pinter. But perhaps the most apposite comparison would be the barbed, self-regarding badinage between cricket enthusiasts Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. There is something quintessentially British about two men sneering at the world around them, jaw pushed forward, lips slightly agape, as if they are breathing in their surroundings through a sardonic mouth rather than the eyes. Davis in particular makes the kind of obtuse, presupposing observations born out of this very English sensibility. In the opening conversation between the two characters, he advances a peculiar veneration of Rasputin - namely for his honesty - suggesting he respects him more than the Kennedy brothers or John Lennon: “if he wanted to get pissed and through chicken drumsticks at the Romanovs, he done it. If he wanted to scrape up a nun, he done it, and made no apologies for it.”

The gritty, kitchen sink realism is also synonymous with some of the best British filmmaking, yet here it is interestingly combined with mysterious, magical elements: in which Davis and Bennett ‘extract’ the titular skeletons from the closets of paying customers; or, reveal their deepest secrets for a fee. It is essentially the tale of two rural traveling salesmen, the only difference being that their particular product has extreme psychic ramifications. In their off-the-rack suits and anachronistic protective gear (driving goggles; brown aprons; gardening gloves; gadgets brimming with dials and incandescent light bulbs), Davis and Bennett - under the direction of the Colonel, Isaacs’s star turn, - promise to exhume memories inaccessible to more conventional therapies, as long as you are happy to sign a waiver first.

Director Nick Whitfield’s unique brand of magical realism is set in the Derbyshire countryside; surroundings he himself resides in when not working. This familiarity with the area has obviously helped him to blend the right amount of nostalgia, illusion and humour, creating a strangely authentic yet off-kilter diegetic universe that is at once recognisable yet unfamiliar; imparting a sensation of England, of Englishness, as it is perceived rather than as it is known. This (un)familiarity can be seen in many ways as a subversion of that classic English mode, the pastoral. Bennett and Davis are thus cast as the mechanicals, perambulating along bucolic paths, speaking in monstrous little voices. Indeed, it is their psuedo-philosophy that provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

It is only right that a film that celebrates Englishness, and the cinematic and literary traditions this entails, should in turn be celebrated by both the British press and the public. Without Isaacs on board it is difficult to see how this would have happened with Skeletons, despite it picking up the Michael Powell award for best new British film at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That accolade would probably still have seen it pass unmentioned on Kermode’s show, which is unashamedly populist. Isaacs’s commendable effort aside, it is through the hard work of the New British Cinema Quarterly (NBCQ - an initiative established by Soda Pictures in conjunction with a host of independent British cinemas to screen the film with a Q&A with members of the cast and crew) that has allowed this highly original, movie to be seen by an audience outside of the festival circuit.

Skeletons shows at the Branchage Film Festival in Jersey Arts Centre on Friday 24th September and then again on Sunday 26th. After that the NBCQ will again be taking it on tour around the country, details of which can be found on the film’s website. If you are lucky enough to have a screening near you, eschew the usual weekly mobile-phone-operator-sponsored Wednesday trip to the multiplex in favour of this British gem.

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