Up There, 2012.
Written and Directed by Zam Salim.
Starring Burn Gorman, Iain De Caestecker and Jo Hartley.
Up There tells the story of departed soul Martin’s (Burn Gorman) journey to Newport, a quest undertaken with the intention of proving to his bosses at an upcoming hearing that he is an asset, and should be allowed to finally make the trip “up there.”
Zam Salim’s directorial feature debut delivers a not altogether comforting prophecy, suggesting that the afterlife at worst may in fact be an extension of the ordinariness of life itself. Salim’s narrative choice of the ordinary over the fantastical affords him the opportunity to create a humorous and what is through the sum of its parts a uniquely British take on the afterlife.
Gorman’s lead performance gives the inescapable impression that no other actor could have played the part. The decision to play it straight was perfectly judged, allowing the performance to enhance the verbal and visual wit to greater effect, rather than to overshadow it. Seen last year in The Dark Knight Rises, Gorman is a fascinating actor to watch; his touch, voice and expressions seductive. He possesses that natural magnetism that attracts the audience’s gaze, and in Up There, it is possible for one to sense his understanding and appreciation of performance that allows an actor to re-invent himself.
Salim succeeds in driving the narrative forward, never allowing the film to become a series of comedic sketches, or at least come across as such. He uses comedic set pieces economically, moving on in a timely fashion, attentive to the construction of a narrative where unexpected connections are developed between his characters, and unexpected truths are revealed. He successfully strikes that balance between the narrative’s comedic and dramatic elements, anchored by Gorman’s central performance, straight man to his co-stars Rash, and love interest Liz (Kate O’Flynn), who add a touch of the absurd and enigmatic.
At its heart Up There is a humorous play on the idea that everyone ends up in purgatory, a place where the assets can be weeded out from the crowd; God’s sorting factory if you like. Up There certainly reminds of bureaucratic cinematic hells depicted in Orson Welles’ The Trial, an adaptation of a Franz Kafka story, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Above all Up There feels an example of creation rather than imitation, set in the afterlife, whereas Welles’ and Gilliam’s hells were only metaphorical ones. Salim’s purgatory is full of narrative, visual and comedic inventiveness: departed souls signing on, group therapy sessions, spirits unable to interact with the physical world of the living, and whilst this leads to inconvenience for his protagonists, many of the memorable comedic set-pieces derive from such narrative inventiveness. Salim’s skill as a writer and director as seen in Up There is his ability to exploit creativity in the mundane and every day, a striking achievement for a first time director, who is courageous enough to take a step back from the fantastical, and instead attempt to stimulate the ordinary and mundane.
The films comedy runs through to its subtext, as the ordinariness of Purgatory in the film mimics the ordinariness of the world of the living the characters have just departed, suggesting that reality is in fact Purgatory, in all except name. This is a wonderful comical touch, and as Martin talks about finding a way to cope, we are left to reflect how just how true this observation is as it pertains to the human condition.
Salim’s intention may have been to imbue the film with an ordinary feel, but it is by no means an example of the ordinary. Up There is a comedy of creative ambition, a willingness to re-imagine ideas and stories, shaped through his own creative voice. A successful feature debut for Salim, it establishes him as writer-director who appreciates the value of plot, character and performance, qualities that mark him out as a director of interest.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance
writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror