Sky1 are moving into original drama with renewed vigour and budget these day; turning beloved literature into television treats for holiday periods, having already adapted two Terry Pratchett novels starring David Jason. Now it's the turn of author David Almond's Whitbread-winning children's novel Skellig, turned into a two-hour Easter Sunday special...
Skellig concerns the Coopers, a young family that move into a fixer-upper house; a try-hard father (John Simm), pregnant mother (Kelly Macdonald), and their son Michael (Bill Milner), who discovers a dilapidated shed at the bottom of the overgrown garden containing an irascible "homeless man" who eats bugs. This is Skellig (Tim Roth), whom we come to realize is of supernatural origin, once his tattered old wings are revealed, and Michael takes it upon himself to nurse this cantankerous stranger to health, with the help of his oddball neighbour Mina (Skye Bennett.) Concurrently, once Michael's baby sister is born with a heart defect, the Coopers begin to fray at the edges as notions of building a family home together begin to look less likely.
I'm sure the book is excellent, but from a television standpoint Skellig left me unmoved and rather bored. There was some good acting from Simm as the self-critical dad, Milner can play his age very convincingly on-sreen (see also: Son Of Rambow), Tim Roth was perfect as the eponymous bird-man, and Trainspotting star Kelly Macdonald had a few nice moments, too. The intentions behind the story were interesting and heartfelt -- with Michael rehabilitating Skellig as his baby sister's life hangs in the balance; the "fallen angel" essentially giving him the chance to feel useful as tensions become unbearable at home.
So, why was I seconds away from turning it off thoughout? It was just too sluggish and the story felt best-suited to the page, where children can discuss the issues it raises in class. As a TV special, I just found it rather empty, languorous and depressing. The cathartic sequences at the end (Skellig finally taking flight, then helping Michael's sister) didn't warm the heart enough to make you forget the slog in getting there. Just by reading a synopsis of the story, Skellig took an hour to impart the information we knew going in...
Maybe I'm being too harsh. Skellig would have been better scheduled to air in autumn, as it felt too dank and somber for an Easter Sunday -- and that possibly tainted my reaction to it. It's very hard to pick fault with the performances or the grown-up attitude to its themes as a children's drama, but it crucially lacked a sense of enchantment and pace. The whole enterprise was a commendable modern fairy tale, but I found it quite a chore to sit through in the end. It scrapes a 3/5 rating, purely because of the performances and the unshakeable feeling that this would be far more immersive and poignant if read.
12 April 2009 Sky1, 7pm
Writer: Irena Brignull (based on the book by David Almond) Director: Annabel Jankel
Cast: Tim Roth (Skellig), Bill Milner (Michael Cooper), Kelly Macdonald (Mrs. Cooper), John Simm (Mr. Cooper), Skye Bennett (Mina), Navin Chowdhry (Mr. Watson), Alexander Armstrong (Mr. Hunt), Edna Dore (Grace), Jermain Allen (Leakey) & Eros Vlahos (Coot)