Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Submarine

Welsh quirk.

Roberts and Paige in Submarine

Despite the fact that his name is nowhere to be found during the opening credits (although Ben Stiller acts as a producer, tellingly), there's little evidence in the opening few minutes of Submarine that this isn't a film by Wes Anderson. Except maybe some Welsh accents. Yet the American Empirical-esque titles, an introspective and highly neurotic young protagonist (who amusingly has a photo of Woody Allen beside his bed) and the playful cinematography certainly give off the vibe of an Anderson joint. It's a small niggle that persists at the quirkier moments of this movie, but luckily Richard Ayoade - well known in comedy circles as the bespectacled oddball in the IT Crowd and the hospital boss in the quite frankly sublime Garth Marenghi's Dark Place - in his feature debut crafts a film with an unusual and distinct identity too.

Based on the book by Joe Dunthorne, Craig Roberts plays Oliver Tate, our neurotic protagonist who shares with us his bizarre internal monologues and concern in voice-over form. The film follows his unusual romantic relationship with classmate Joanna Brewster (Yasmin Paige) which begins as a sort-of revenge on Joanna's ex, but soon quietly blossoms into something more. Meanwhile, Oliver is also worrying obsessed with the state of his parents' (the always reliable Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship and, more peculiarly, their sex life. His mother's ex, a slightly demented but energetic psychic played by the excellent Paddy Considine, moving in next door doesn't help. Dealing with his own problems as well intruding on other peoples', Oliver begins to come of age.

A film as quirky as Submarine will always come across as slightly cold and removed, and sometimes the characters and their actions are so bizarre that it's hard to entirely invest in their emotional turmoil. Oliver, for example, is the kind of fellow who thinks taking his girlfriend to his "favourite industrial estate" is a good date and opportunity to ask her to sleep with him. Joanna is a pyromaniac, though, so maybe it isn't so much of a stretch. It has that precarious, detached feeling an awful lot of indie films are criticised for, and if you're not a fan of Anderson-esque quirk, there are moments here that may have you cringing: perhaps as they namecheck old reliables like Serge Gainsbourg or J.D. Salinger. It's all done with tongue-in-cheek though, with Oliver purposefully acting pretentious to impress.

Luckily, there's something beneath the eccentric surface. The acting certainly helps, with the central cast almost universally excellent. Hawkins and Taylor portray middle-aged despondence perfectly, their performances full of heartache, frustration and silent regrets. Considine is always great, and while his character is perhaps played a bit too much for laughs on occasion (I dare you not to giggle at the blowjob scene though) there's also a weird loneliness there that is never expressed explicitly. Paige plays Joanna at first as a hyperactive teen that slowly becomes sadder as reality hits hard. And finally Craig Roberts is likable in a jittery central performance. Oliver is kind of like a less confident (except in his head) Max Fischer, although there are much stronger hints that Tate may in fact by slightly psychologically disturbed and obsessed. Eventually though - and commented on by Tate himself - he grows up, however slightly.

The story progresses from removed eccentricities to removed emotion over the course of the running time. With a protagonist as unusual as Oliver the emotional undercurrents that eventually come into play are never obnoxiously stated, Ayoade instead having the confidence to play scenes minus cliches and with moments of silence and humour. Unfortunately, a precariously indie soundtrack by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys doesn't help - at least when the lyrics kick in it doesn't. There are also a number of lulls. Despite frequent appearances to the contrary, this pretty much follows the standard rom-com structure, and even with moments of emotional clarity in the final few scenes there are few major surprises.

It's not a flawless success, then, but it is a confident debut from Ayoade. Filmed inventively throughout by cinematographer Erik Wilson, it ultimately does distance itself from the Wes Anderson influence. It may share the same sort of quirky protagonist and bold typefaces of Rushmore, but certainly has a unique screen presence. It's witty as opposed to laugh-out-loud funny, and the payoffs demand a little bit of work from the audience. But it overcomes a cold, removed exterior to have moments of real warmth amongst the absurdities and exaggerations. Not quite a great film, but one that shows a lot of promise.

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