A bunch of petty criminals and north London denizens see the light in more than one way when an angelic urchin enters their orbit in "The Lives of the Saints." A rare British indie that aims for something higher than contempo miserabilism, fable-like pic works better in stretches than in its totality but never descends into navel-gazing artiness.

A bunch of petty criminals and north London denizens see the light in more than one way when an angelic urchin enters their orbit in “The Lives of the Saints.” A rare British indie that aims for something higher than contempo miserabilism, fable-like pic works better in stretches than in its totality but never descends into navel-gazing artiness. After due anointing on the fest circuit, pic could raise small collections as a niche item with favorable reviews.

Though pic is the first feature by well-known Scottish photog Rankin (also publisher of Dazed & Confused magazine) and his filmmaking partner Chris Cottam, the most remarkable thing about the movie is not its look but its ensemble playing and off-kilter dialogue. The wordsmithing, by Tony Grisoni (“Brothers of the Head”), is in a semi-poetic, faux-Shakespearean mode that’s not overdone and is primarily responsible for the magical-realist flavor that lightly pervades the movie.

Agitato opening, during which the characters of the multi-ethnic Green Lanes, in Haringey, north London, are intro’ed, thankfully subsides into a more relaxed visual style — often darkly lit, sometimes in tableau style but never as an end in itself.

Spark that lights the whole fuse is Runner (Daon Broni), who, while on an errand for local bully Mr. Karva (James Cosmo), comes across a weird-looking, Dickensian ragamuffin in a park.

Runner takes the tyke to the home of Karva’s stepson, Othello (David Leon), and his trashy but grounded g.f., Tina (Emma Pierson). The kid mumbles in some unknown language and exudes an other-worldly aura; next morning, to Karva’s horror, Runner announces he’s quitting his job. “The angel is a gift, what we’ve been looking for,” says Runner.

When Othello figures out the kid can see a half-hour into the future, he exploits this gift to get rich (and independent from his stepfather). Other characters also go through sudden life-changes: a foreign waitress, Christabella (Gillian Kearney), adopts a vagrant, thinking he’s a grown-up version of her stillborn child; a priest (Marc Warren) with a secret to hide starts doubting his faith.

Meanwhile, Karva, who sees his neat little world in which he was top dog starting to fragment, gets Othello’s best pal, Emilio (Bronson Webb), to kidnap the kid.

Pic’s gun-waving finale is its weakest section, and Rankin and Cottam don’t manage to sustain the magical-realist tone all the way through. But Grisoni’s script at least tries to approach subjects — spiritual emptiness, characters’ inner metaphysical lives — that rarely get an airing in modern British cinema.

At its best — as when the priest visits the kid and is transformed by the experience — script, perfs and Rob Lane’s uplifting score combine powerfully.

Cosmo, made up to look like some psychotic Turkic padrone, pretty much steals the movie, though most other roles are well etched, especially Leon’s Othello (no relation to the Bard’s moor) and Pierson’s cockney-with-a-heart, Tina. Kearney is also utterly believable as the immigrant Catholic waitress. (The exact ethnicity of all the foreigners is never specified, though Green Lanes is heavily populated with Turks and Greeks.)

Tech package is OK, though print caught was not razor sharp on the bigscreen. Lenser Baz Irvine’s saturated colors are a plus.

The Lives of the Saints

U.K.

Production

A Tartan Films release of a Dazed Film & TV production, in association with Meltin' Pot. (International sales: Dazed, London.) Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith. Directed by Rankin, Chris Cottam. Screenplay, Tony Grisoni.

Crew

Camera (color), Baz Irvine; editor, Chris Gill; music, Rob Lane; production designer, Mark Digby; art director, Chris Lightburn-Jones; costumes, Jane Petrie; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Davies; assistant director, William Booker. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 3, 2006. (Also in Edinburgh, London film festivals.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With

James Cosmo, David Leon, Emma Pierson, Bronson Webb, Sam MacLintock, Daon Broni, Gillian Kearney, Marc Warren.
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