Deep Down

Richard Ayoade’s SUBMARINE, adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel, could serve as an object lesson in many things — how to make an effective transition from TV and music promos (the director is a star of the sitcom The IT Crowd), how to make a British coming-of-age story, how to make a recent period movie and avoid time-capsule pastiche and nostalgia, how to handle a character who isn’t conventionally sympathetic — i.e. who isn’t RIGHT about a lot of things — and still preserve audience sympathy… but the angle I’d like to lavish most praise on is the absorption of influence.

SUBMARINE (it’s not a 1930 Jack Holt adventure film, the title is merely allusive to the submerged feeling that comes with depression) wears its influences on its sleeve, with a boldness alibi’d by the conceit of protag Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, with his Bud Cort gimlet eyes) continually imagining himself as the star of a movie. Ayoade throws in Scorsese flashbulb freeze-frames, HAROLD AND MAUDE sidelong glances, a DON’T LOOK NOW red hood mistaken identity, Godardian typography… importantly, the pleasure of the film is enhanced by recognition of the sources — somebody who’d never seen a pre-1980 movie could still enjoy this unhindered, but getting where the ideas are borrowed from is an additional pleasure rather than a source of irritation. At least for me.

Crucial to this is that the devices all perform narrative / dramatic / emotional / poetic functions, rather than just being nods in the direction of classics to whose status the film aspires (as in the cargo cult filmmaking of the Tarantino clone). When Ayoade performs a slow zoom into a bowl of lumpy school custard, he evokes the misery of a British comprehensive school education with Proustian immediacy — but if you recognize it as a riff on Scorsese’s alka-seltzer zoom in TAXI DRIVER, there’s an additional laugh.

(Although, my own school’s custard erred on the side of fluidity, being essentially a yellow milk sealed beneath a viscous, rubbery skin thick enough to support the weight of a 2nd year pupil.)

This movie really gets school — the inescapable universal bullying and homophobia. I mean, I love GREGORY’S GIRL, but neither Fiona or I recognize it as in any major way an accurate depiction of the school system. Everybody’s so nice. As with a good period movie set anytime before the twentieth century, a school movie has to start from the premise, surely, that even the finest people are going to be absolutely ghastly at times by any civilized standard.

Yasmin Paige is both beautiful and real as the protag’s far-from-perfect “love interest” (a weak expression for teenage passion, that) and succeeds in a role at first sight even less overtly sympathetic than the hero’s. The young actors are supported by adults with intense and original comedy chops — Sally Hawkins (sporting a disfiguring hairdo apparently modeled on Wendy Craig’s look in the 70s/80s sitcom Butterflies), Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine (astonishing low-key physical comedy here). Very wisely, the film avoids stuffing the cast with the filmmaker’s famous chums (that actually works in SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, but is generally something to be avoided at all costs). Exec producer Ben Stiller does pop up in heavy disguise on a TV set.

By the way, speaking as one whose response to the trailer for Mike Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY was to wish for access to a red button that would bring human life to a swift and merciful end, the time may have come for me to admit that Sally Hawkins is a welcome and useful addition to the bestiary of British acting talent.

How will the young stars do in future? In particular, how will Craig Roberts cope with the fact that he has already, at aged 19, uttered the line he was born to say?

“My mum gave a hand-job to a mystic.”

Fiona’s favourite shot — “staring at him balefully over a fantastically baroque prawn cocktail. I was the only one laughing at that.”

2 Responses to “Deep Down”

  1. Mr Cairns, what did you think of the sequel to Gregory’s Girl, Gregory’s Two Girls? I’m afraid I found it destroyed most of the things that were charming about the original, which just goes to show that lusting after the nubile captain of the girl’s football team might be charming when you’re in the same age group, but fundamentally creepy when you are the teacher having the same urges (I think they were trying to do an American Beauty kind of thing but didn’t have the main character punished for his trangressions at the end to balance things out).

    Aoyade was also in the amazing spoof horror series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, (think of Marenghi as a more pretentious James Herbert) in which he played the best wooden actor I’ve ever seen, and then took centre stage in the spin-off series Man To Man With Dean Lerner, resulting in a programme that is what I would imagine would be the result of Hugh Hefner deciding to produce a chat show.

    He also made an appearance as one of the ‘leading cultural commentators’ from the year 2030 looking back with nostalgia on the distant past of 2007 on Armando Ianucci’s excellent Time Trumpet series:

  2. Have enjoyed Ayoade’s appearances ever since Darkplace. Fiona has a particular love of the “Rape an Ape” episode of Time Trumpet.

    8 mins in.

    Hard to say where the problems begin with Gregory’s Two Girls — I suspect Forsyth had no interest in a sequel and so tried to shoehorn in things he was more concerned about, whether they fit or not. Hence the subplot about the arms dealer, or whatever it was. And it’s all notably charmless and lacking in anything that even looks like comedy. Best avoided, even for purposes of study.

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