British directors Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley reunite after their BAFTA nominated first feature Black Pond with an effortlessly funny, expertly crafted and thought-provoking missing persons tale.
Initially set around Regent’s Canal, The Darkest Universe follows controlling young banker Zac (played by co-director Will Sharpe) as he searches for his eccentric sister Alice (Tiani Ghosh) and her new boyfriend Toby (Joe Thomas) who’ve gone missing on a trip aboard a narrow boat. Zac quickly mobilises a solo search campaign, complete with posters, flyers and a website filled with daily vlogs of his mostly fruitless attempts to find his sister. As Zac widens his search and enlists the help of Joe’s brother Charlie (Raph Shirley), he becomes more and more obsessive and gradually begins to unravel.
The events leading up to the couples disappearance – which include Alice and Toby’s blossoming romance and the disintegration of Zac’s relationships with his sister and partner Eva (Sophia Di Martino) – are cleverly interlaced with Zac’s continually frenzied search. The transition between these different strands is seamless, each scene complements the next providing a real emotional depth and texture to the storytelling.
At a slender 86 minutes there’s not one ounce of fat here, every moment feels significant and not once does it fail to engage. Considering the age of the film-makers Sharpe and Kingsley, just 29 and 30 respectively, this is alarmingly efficient and mature work. Sophistication isn’t just evident in the plot either as the dialogue is packed with wit, humour and poignancy. Toby’s dad Alan’s (Chris Langham) proposition that his son and Alice “became so vague they disappeared” is an amusing reflection on their personalities while Zac’s meditation that the wisest way to look at happiness is as the first stage of sadness exhibits the film’s frequent and profound melancholy.
This dialogue is given greater impact by the casts adroit delivery, Thomas and Ghosh particularly shine as the elusive couple. The body language and awkward silences of their encounters convey their connection more efficiently and endearingly than words ever could. The directing duo also posses a keen eye for an arresting shot. Whether it’s an extreme close up of fungal vegetation, a moss laden statue or the gentle current of the canal, The Darkest Universe is packed with striking imagery. Alongside this feature a series of hallucinatory images including distorted, dark canal tunnels and a strange smoke cloud which merges into flowing water. Accompanied by an enchantingly discordant score these surreal almost hypnotic images add an unsettling ambiguity to the film.
Described by Sharpe and Kingsley as “a romantic comedy set in space, or – to be more specific – planet Earth” the film is delightfully difficult to pin down. Sometimes it offers itself up as a rom-com, at other times it feels more like a mystery film or a character study of an increasingly unstable man. There’s even a science-fiction/supernatural tone to the story and yet The Darkest Universe is solely none of these. What it is, is an exploration of human connections, emotions and life and definitely one of the most refreshingly original British films this year.