From a young age I thought that the concept of heaven was flawed. The idea of deceased loved ones living for ever, looking down upon us, far from bringing me comfort, worried me. Why would anyone want someone watching over them at all times (to be fair I was a guilty and shameful adolescent when these thoughts were taking form), and how would those who had ascended feel as they saw the living getting on with their lives? Would they be able to move on in a similar way, or would they feel bitterness and pain that life goes on without them?
This is the thinking behind Zam Salim’s debut feature film Up There, where the afterlife is a bureaucratic purgatory, a place where the newly deceased need to prove that they are worthy of going ‘up there’, not by being ‘good’, but by being useful and in control. While in this holding state individuals have to sign on once a week, go for counselling, be regularly assessed by supervisors and discover if they are going to be moved up, or down. Imagine The Office as written by Kafka and directed by Mike Leigh, with notes by Alan Bennett, and you’re close. Shot in Scotland, it has the look and feel of a European film; in fact the closest comparison I can think of is Lone Sherfig’s similarly bleak Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.
Martin (or is it Mark?) is our reluctant hero, a man who has been killed by a car, or to be precise a KA, and who spends his days caring for the new arrivals to try and earn his way up the stairs and who spends his time off watching his wife as she begins to get on with her life with his old best friend. Martin is played by Burn Gorman as a world weary misanthrope. He is a classic downtrodden British comedy character in that although death has not turned out as he expected, he didn’t expect anything else. There are shades of Tony Hancock, James Bowlam in The Likely Lads or Dylan Moran in anything about Gorman’s performance, and his is the outstanding turn of the film.
As is often the case, Martin’s (after)life is changed by his being thrown together with a character who is opposite to him in almost every way. New boy in town Rash, played by Aymen Hamdouchi, is the Oscar to Martin’s Felix and when Rash spooks one of their latest charges they have to chase the young man all the way to his hometown, a seaside retirement village where the average age of the dead is acceptably high. On the way they meet many odd characters but the appearance of Kate O’Flynn’s Liz shows Martin that this death need not be the purgatory he thought it to be.
Up There is a black comedy which is about bereavement and coming to terms with loss, but which also offers hope, suggesting that we should enjoy the present rather than always looking for something, or somewhere, else to make our lives better. It is also that rarest of things; a proper indie British comedy which remains original while dealing with familiar themes. Zam Salim, who also wrote the script, has made a quirky delight and I can’t wait to see what he does next.