English multimedia artist Dave McKean’s third feature — it would’ve been his second, had not funding woes greatly delayed post-production on a film that completed principal photography in 2007 — is a more personal project than his first, the Neil Gaiman-based “Mirrormask.” (Not to mention 2012’s relatively little-seen “The Gospel of Us,” a performance record of a modern passion play starring Michael Sheen.) Yet like that 2005 debut, “Luna” deploys fantasy elements in service of an emotionally grounded story that transcends standard genre categories. This delicate, poetic drama of two couples working through issues of grief and longing over a long country weekend is a minor commercial prospect, but should find some admirers beyond the fest circuit in home formats.
After a mysterious opening animated sequence in which a paper airplane/bird is sent by a woman to a distant tower, we meet our real-world protagonists. Nearly losing their way on serpentine rural roads, Grant (Ben Daniels) and Christine (Dervla Kirwan) are visiting, for the first time in many years, their old art-school classmate Dean (Michael Maloney), along with his much younger spouse, Freya (Stephanie Leonidas). It’s an awkward reunion: The first couple dropped all social contacts after losing a child. While Freya insisted on inviting them over, Dean remains skittish about the emotional minefield he fears they’ll bring with them — perhaps also partly because he’s done so well professionally (as an author/illustrator/children’s and graphic novelist, etc., rather like McKean himself), while his longtime friends have struggled, their own creativity sapped by personal loss.
Dinner goes well enough, until a story Freya tells of the bizarre rumored history of their rambling coastal country home, triggering an emotional outburst from Christine, still inconsolable over their child’s death. But even before that, she experiences visions of a spectral child who raids the table, unseen by anyone but her. Later in bed, Grant has an apparent nightmare of more otherworldly children emerging from a wardrobe with horns on their heads. Whether such sights are dreams, waking imaginative rambles, or something supernatural is left ambiguous in McKean’s skillful weave, which eventually encompasses several different animation techniques, as well as both fantastical and realistically intimate live-action.
The next day, the women and men separate for some bonding time, confiding various secrets and insecurities. But something triggers Grant — the emotional “rock” his wife depends on — to hit the bottle, in an apparent relapse that turns the group’s second dinner into an exercise in hostile provocation. In the aftermath, fantasy elements increasingly blur into the real-world ones, leading to some crises but also resulting in a pleasing, cathartic closure of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Having worked in a dizzying array of media — from album covers, magazine and promotional illustrations to various types of film work, not to mention Dean’s various outlets — McKean approaches “Luna’s” complicated, unclassifiable aesthetic and thematic mix organically, with a minimum of self-consciousness or fuss. While there have certainly been more gripping and incisive cinematic portraits of the grown-up issues at core here, one must appreciate McKean’s addressing them with via imaginative leaps, particularly in an era when the “fantasy” so pervasive onscreen is almost exclusively juvenile in content. (Reportedly the pic was inspired by two close friends losing a child just as the filmmaker and his wife were successfully starting their own family.)
The principal quartet of highly qualified actors give strong performances. Despite the pic’s rather tortuous production history, tech and design elements are quite seamless and inventive on a modest scale. Among myriad other hats here, McKean co-composed (with Iain Ballamy) and played on the original score, which is attractive (Dhafer Youssef is featured on oud and vocals), but a little more incessant than necessary.