Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Directed by: Tom Kingsley & Will Sharpe
Starring: Will Sharpe, Tiani Ghosh, Joe Thomas
Three people are missing in The Darkest Universe, only two of them in the traditional sense. Unmalleable misfits Alice Pratt and her charmingly vacant boyfriend Toby take a trip on their narrow boat home, normally moored safely on the Regents Canal. They never return, leaving Alice’s brother Zac alone and broken, losing grip of a life already fast disintegrating. Not entirely sure of its own identity, there’s still a lot to enjoy in this trippy and funny meditation on life and loss from directors Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley.
The duo are fast carving out a reputation the right side of quirky (a word at least one of their characters can’t stand). Sharpe in particular has his fingertips all over this sophomore effort, following on from 2011’s Black Pond. Aside from sharing directing duties, he also stars as Zac and co-writes with Tiani Ghosh who plays Alice. What they create is off-kilter and absurdly amusing when not plunging into a pit of despair, and sometimes even when it is.
Narratively they go with a fragmented structure jumping between past and present. Initially the plot focusses on Zac’s often insanely peppy attempts to drum up interest in his missing sister. He blankets the canal with posters, covers himself in missing sister clothing, and records upbeat videos. Apparently he received a lot of negative feedback for being too miserable in the early efforts. The more the search continues, the more he unravels, the film going the same way. Soon Zac is flowing seamlessly through past and present, equally desperate in both as he tries to sort out his wayward sister, hold onto a dying relationship and keep his career on track. The Darkest Universe mines some pretty deep seams of misery, anchored by Sharpe’s jittery, fragile charisma. One moment he seems perfectly well-balanced, the next frustration floods through and he’s in the middle of a screaming fit on the family narrow boat, or wrestling with the brother of his sister’s boyfriend who only wants to help. Like much of the film, it’s funny while it’s sad, left-field humour finding a way in. The opening scene sets the tone with a carefully judged joke, the punchline held until the last moment.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is the visual ambition. They merge quick cuts, sepia nightmares, close-ups and panoramic countryside vistas together. Sometimes it goes too far, dissolving into a self-consciously experimental effort, but for the most part they create a surprising milieu. Sharpe and Kingsley also litter the film with comic talent, securing the additional services of Joe Thomas, Simon Bird, Jonny Sweet and Chris Langham for roles of various importance.
As a whole it doesn’t quite come together, too many different ingredients fed into the pot to create something truly satisfying. Even then much of it is impressive, and if the end result is not quite the sum of all the parts, it’s brave, sometimes unclassifiable and mostly rather good.