The Darkest Light

Solid performances are undermined by an unfocused script and direction in "The Darkest Light," a kind of updated, pre-millennium version of "Whistle Down the Wind" with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

With:
Tom - Stephen Dillane Sue - Kerry Fox Catherine - Keri Arnold Uma - Kavita Sungha Matthew - Jason Walton Nisha - Nisha K. Nayar Father Mark - Nicholas Hope

Solid performances are undermined by an unfocused script and direction in “The Darkest Light,” a kind of updated, pre-millennium version of “Whistle Down the Wind” with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. Despite some powerful moments, the movie’s overall feel and emotional range are more reminiscent of Brit telepics, equipping this more for a small-screen career than a theatrical one.

Pic marks the helming debut of “Full Monty” scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, who co-directs here with his fellow Class of ’92 Bournemouth Film School grad Bille Eltringham. The two have worked together in various capacities since 1993, though this is their first collaboration on a full-scale feature.

Set in a small village in Beaufoy’s native Yorkshire (also the location of his previous script, “Among Giants”), story centers on a farming couple, Tom and Sue (Stephen Dillane, Kerry Fox), their stubborn 11-year-old daughter, Catherine (Keri Arnold), and young son, Matthew (Jason Walton), who has leukemia. Catherine befriends a new girl at her school, Uma (Kavita Sungha), an Indian, while Matthew undergoes various tests at the local hospital.

Larking around one day in an abandoned army firing range, the two girls see a blinding flash of light while getting friendly in a hillside grotto. Catherine claims she’s seen the Virgin Mary but Uma claims it’s a portent of something bad. Soon afterward, Catherine’s parents’ farm is devastated by an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease and the community is divided into those that believe Catherine’s “vision” and those who don’t.

The vision takes place only 40 minutes into the movie, after a leisurely but well-played introduction to the characters; thereafter, too many ideas and themes jostle for screen time, with none really gaining precedence or being properly developed to engage audience emotions.

Beaufoy’s script flirts with the ideas of opposing religions (Catholicism and Hinduism), simple faith vs. church dogma, superstition vs. pragmatism, and so on — though the drama is undercut by Tom (and the viewer) knowing early on that the hoof-and-mouth was already starting to kill his animals. It’s typical of the script’s lack of focus that, at midpoint, the movie appears to toy with the idea that the flash of light could be God’s punishment for incipient lesbian emotions (hinted at in the grotto scene) between the strong Catherine and shy Uma. Yet another dramatic strand is the will-he-or-won’t-he question of Matthew’s survival.

Pic’s visual style is equally hither and yon, with Mary Farbrother’s camera at times summoning up spiritual vistas of Yorkshire’s stony hills and dales, and at others switching to handheld realism. Adrian Johnston’s music starts well but later morphs unconvincingly into Celtic-mystic mode.

Still, perfs are all fine, with young Arnold very good as the willful Catherine, Dillane and Fox reliable as her parents, and Nisha K. Nayar strong as Uma’s supportive, sensible mom. Sungha’s role as Uma is under-drawn.

The Darkest Light

Production: A Pathe Distributors release (in U.K.) of a Pathe Pictures presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, Le Studio Canal Plus and BBC Films, of a Footprint Films production. (International sales: G2 Films, London.) Produced by Mark Blaney. Executive producers, Andrea Calderwood, Alexis Lloyd, Barbara McKissack. Directed by Bille Eltringham, Simon Beaufoy. Screenplay, Beaufoy.

With: Tom - Stephen Dillane Sue - Kerry Fox Catherine - Keri Arnold Uma - Kavita Sungha Matthew - Jason Walton Nisha - Nisha K. Nayar Father Mark - Nicholas HopeCamera (Technicolor prints), Mary Farbrother; editor, Ewa J. Lind; music, Adrian Johnston; production designer, Chris Townsend; art director, Jason Carlin; costumes, Ffion Elinor; sound (Dolby), Kipling Walker, Paul Hamblin; assistant director, Max Keene; casting, Wendy Brazington. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Focus on British Cinema), Aug. 22, 1999. (Also in Taormina Film Festival; Montreal Film Festival -- World Cinema.) Running time: 92 MIN.

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