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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Leslie Felperin

The Undertaker review – Paul McGann offers buried feelings in shady period thriller

His dark materials … Paul McGann as Arthur in The Undertaker.
Grave business … Paul McGann as Arthur in The Undertaker Photograph: Publicity image

This low-key thriller, set in the late 1950s-early 60s judging by the costumes, harks back to the regional British crime flicks of that period, the sort of movies where penny-stakes gangsters and spivs in shiny suits clash over who will control the ration-card black market. Writer-director Michael Wright clearly has a yen for this milieu and takes care to get the argot right in this tale of Arthur Morel (Paul McGann), a reticent funeral director who gets mixed up with local hoodlum Finlay (Roger Barclay) in a northern town. Finlay needs a bit of help burying the excess bodies his shady business generates, or “loose ends” as he describes them.

It’s not immediately clear why Arthur agrees to take on this shady extra business, but perhaps it has something to do with his late brother who had a gambling habit that got him into trouble with Finlay. Or maybe Arthur just fancies some extra cash. It’s hard to tell given how buttoned-down and clenched of jaw McGann’s performance is, playing a man obsessed with keeping the doors between his work life and private life closed and locked, literally as well as figuratively.

Wright and his team deliberately turn down the colour saturation and favour brown and grey tones in the production and costume design, so that everything looks like it was developed in weak tea. It gets a little oppressive over the long haul but there are a few sparkly moments: for instance an overwritten speech given by Tara Fitzgerald, playing an embittered nightclub singer, about the physics and metaphysics of snooker. It’s a terribly pretentious bit of writing, but she nails it. Also of note is a sweet cameo from the late character actor Murray Melvin in one of his last performances, playing Arthur’s retired co-worker Lenny who phlegmatically expects his own death will come soon and has very firm opinions on what kind of coffin he wants.

• The Undertaker is released on 3 November in UK cinemas.

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