The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE DARKEST UNIVERSE | The Movie Waffler


A world-weary young man searches for his missing eccentric sister.

Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Tom Kingsley, Will Sharpe

Starring: Will Sharpe, Tiani Ghosh, Joe Thomas, Sophia Di Martino, Simon Bird

The Darkest Universe is a hodgepodge of the sort of clichés that spring to mind when you think of “indie” filmmaking. Though you can occasionally see a genuine emotional truth peek through, it struggles to establish itself amidst the film’s pseudo-profound white noise.

In 2011, the directing team Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe released Black Pond, a film that performed well on the festival circuit and even garnered a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Their newest effort, The Darkest Universe, is far from outstanding; it’s a hodgepodge of the sort of clichés that spring to mind when you think of “indie” filmmaking. Though you can occasionally see a genuine emotional truth peek through, it struggles to establish itself amidst the film’s pseudo-profound white noise.

Zac Pratt (played by co-director Sharpe) is a young man working in finance who feels a certain sense of responsibility towards his sister, Alice (Tiani Ghosh), a flighty girl whose absent mindedness and refusal to interact in traditional ways verges on the pathological. With the help of his Italian girlfriend (Sophia Di Martino), Zac sets Alice up on a tiny houseboat and finds her some work (though she ultimately refuses pay). One day Alice, along with her boyfriend (Joe Thomas) vanish along with their boat. A deeply concerned Zac, dissatisfied with the investigation of the disappearance, takes it upon himself to find out what happened to his sister.

Though this mystery is central to the film’s story, The Darkest Universe is not a procedural thriller - its plot, which oscillates between before and after Alice’s disappearance, is more about Zac’s metaphysical self-discovery. Yet though the two story lines are intercut with decent fluidity, the film lacks structure; each scene is a dull repetition of the same dull scene that came before it. Zac’s dash cam scenes in which he speaks into the camera are particularly lifeless. Who are these videos for? They certainly aren’t the videos Zac records for the effort to find his sister. His philosophical musings are limp because they are so direct, and they present themselves not as telling windows into his character, but rather as tidbits of “wisdom” flung for the audience to chew on. But his faux-wise perspectives on things like “happiness” and “black holes” sound as deep as they did coming from the stoned kid from your intro to philosophy class who you wouldn’t leave your dorm room. In one sequence, the classic indie Philip Glass wannabe score builds to an emotional climax as the handheld video camera zips between rolling hills and an animal carcass while Zac exclaims: “Life! Death!” a moment that’s as complex as it sounds. At one point, Zac, in the throws of emotional turmoil, sits like Buddha as he cuts his hair off with a knife. Is this something that Zac as a character would do? No. Is this an image that lazily suggests that he’s going through spiritual evolution? Yes. The film’s emotional climax is just what you’d expect from a movie like this: there’s a lot of screaming of “truths” and smashing of fists on tables. The intention was raw; the effect is boring. And if you were worried that there wouldn’t be a couple hippy-dippy dream sequences - don’t worry, The Darkest Universe checks that box too. The takeaway from all this is that the laborious suggestion of profundity does not substitute for profundity itself.

A few months back, I criticised English-language indie films for using tragic loss as a cheap fast-track to elicit an unearned emotional response. Two such indies at Cannes featured characters whose mothers had died before the films’ stories had begun. Well get out your handkerchiefs, because The Darkest Universe has another dead mother - it is suggested that Zac and Alice’s mother committed suicide. I don’t meant to sound callous - tragedies of this nature obviously deserve representations that accurately show the dark power of grief. But it’s Zac’s asinine way of describing his mother’s loss (“it’s like, ahhhh!” the character coyly explains) that makes us see how little The Darkest Universe is interested in reflecting the truth or subtleties of the grieving process. Instead, it lunges awkwardly at an emotional payoff by going straight for the audience’s dead-mother jugular. The directors do accomplish something meaningful in the central relationship between Zac and his Mabel Longhetti-esque sister - their love for and frustration with one another is clearly felt in the movie’s more clear-eyed scenes - and that effective impression does stay with you as the credits roll. But the emotional truth is awash in scenes of Zac’s ponderous soul-searching.

The Darkest Universe plays like a filmed outline: a central story and a blur of a main idea exist, but the scenes aren’t filled with anything meaningful and they don’t connect well to one another. The dash-cam sequences only contribute to the feeling that The Darkest Universe is merely a first draft. I think a completed draft of the film would be stronger, but Kingsley and Sharpe don’t have a chance of making something truly meaningful until they ditch the clichés that serve as placeholders for actual style or substance.

The Darkest Universe is in cinemas November 4th.