In a world of heavyweight prestige pieces, like the upcoming Suffragette, and straight-to-Sunday-evening light dramas, like the charming but forgettable Mr. Holmes, the British film industry does seem to be lacking in low-budget genre (excluding the ever-present straight-to-DVD Mockney gangster contingent.) The Messenger is a nice exception to this rule.
Robert Sheehan stars as Jack, a scrawny, unkempt misfit with hollow cheeks and a ratty brown jacket. Mockingly sarcastic and clearly damaged, he spends his days getting thrown out of pubs for “weird shit”, mostly arguing with thin air, and taking beatings from aggrieved strangers, often just outside of funerals.
Jack, you see, can talk to the dead and, as such, as the sole conduit between their world and the living, they won’t leave him alone. As Jack himself puts it, they have “unfinished business yadda yadda yadda”. His estranged sister, Emma (Lily Cole), is perennially worried about him and his slick, professional brother-in-law Martin (Alex Wyndham) wants to have him committed. It’s enough to drive anyone to misanthropy and drink.
David Blair’s film takes place in a sort of murky, urban limbo, on council estates and under bridges; all shot in an unflattering halogen glare that shows everyone at their worst. When Jack is approached by the ghost of Mark (Jack Fox), a murdered journalist who wants him to pass a message to his bereaved wife Sarah (Tamzin Merchant), Jack finds himself out of his depth.
The Messenger glosses over this murder mystery angle in favour of a psychological drama, delving into Jack’s turbulent, sun-bleached past – absent dad (Andrew Tiernan); angry mum (Deirdre O’Kane) – and the trauma that may have led to his “condition”, an ambiguity somewhat undermined by his Haley Joel Osment-alike nephew.
There’s a pantheon of respected British actors on display here, including Joely Richardson as a sympathetic shrink and David O’Hara as the dour DCI Keane, but it’s Sheehan who’s the true revelation, turning in a surprisingly delicate performance as the desperately weary Jack, driven to his wit’s end by self-interested spooks. That alone is worth putting the word out for.