VOD film review: The Darkest Universe
James R | On 04, Nov 2016
Directors: Will Sharpe, Tom Kingsley
Cast: Will Sharpe, Tiani Ghosh, Joe Thomas
Watch The Darkest Universe online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
What’s in a black hole? Do you know? Of course you don’t. But are you happy with not knowing? Or do you want an explanation? That’s the kind of question you can expect to be asked in The Darkest Universe, the latest film from Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley. It’s a film that has nothing to do with black holes. Or does it?
That sense of bewilderment is nothing new to those who saw Kingsley and Sharpe’s debut, Black Pond, a BAFTA-nominated blend of depression, death and bizarre humour. Sharpe’s TV show, Flowers, recently renewed by Channel 4 for a second season, straddles that same line; together, the duo are unrivalled kings of capturing the insanity of human existence and the lucidity of grief. The Darkest Universe dives into those waters once more. It’s weird. It’s hilarious. It’s relentlessly bleak. It may be their best work yet.
Sharpe plays Zac Pratt, a brother who more than lives up to his name, as he gets his sister, Alice (Ghosh), to move out from his flat and into a houseboat on the Regent’s Canal. But fast forward to the present, and she’s gone missing, along with her boyfriend, Toby (Thomas). A boat does not just vanish into thin air, reasons Zac. And so he sets out to find her, distributing leaflets, creating a blog, recording videos and roping in Toby’s astrophysicist brother, Charlie, to help.
Things don’t happen that can’t be explained, Zac tells his scientific sidekick. That need for logic and answers drives his entire existence, an attitude that turns him into a walking time bomb of stress and anxiety. Sharpe is magnificently repressed, delivering a turn that’s as hysterical as it is tragic. Putting “borderline” on something doesn’t make it true, he shouts at someone on the phone, after they describe Alice as autistic. “I could call my soup borderline vegetarian, but that’s still a lie. It’s got ham in it.”
He forcibly strives for an upbeat tone on camera – “Maybe we should do some running around,” he tells Charlie. “I might make a theme tune with GarageBand.” – but that only makes his misery more apparent, as he walks around with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “MISSING” in giant, red letters.
We flash back from his desperate denial to see Alice in the months leading up to her disappearance, as Zac teaches her how to steer and maintain her floating home. Tiani Ghosh is as endearingly lost then as Zac is sadly adrift now – she’s the kind of flatmate who uses his fresh basil to make a collage – and when they collide in the past, things are convincingly ugly.
But Sharpe and Kingsley have an eye for laughter in even the darkest moments; one angry outburst from Zac, in front of his pushy girlfriend and the embarrassed Toby, is a masterful piece of heartbreaking comedy. Even Toby and Alice’s first date is delightfully downbeat, as the usual question of what her favourite film is descends into claims of preferring foreign films. “I don’t need to understand what’s going on,” he splutters, lamely.
The script is full of those uncomfortably funny shards of dialogue – co-writer Ghosh and Sharpe have an innate sympathy for people slightly out of sync with the rest of the world. That spiky edge is elevated to profound awkwardness when combined with stunning nightmarish sequences of the missing barge. The result is dazzlingly different to everything else in cinemas. It’s not unique, because it’s like Sharpe and Kingsley’s other, oddly compassionate work; warped, witty and worryingly funny.
Zac’s dreams contain no more clues than the rest of it, but maybe that’s the truth The Darkest Universe is hunting for; in a world of known knowns, unknown unknowns and collages made of basil, life is partly about learning to accept the known unknowns in between. Is there a light at the end of that proverbial tunnel? Is there even a canal? Maybe the boat’s just a vegetable or a Twiglet left down the back of the sofa.