What lies be­neath

Richard Ayoade’s un­set­tling com­edy is like an off-kil­ter

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

OLIVER TATE is a recog­nis­able type. A young man who feels him­self brighter than the oiks who rule the play­ground, Oliver har­bours a pas­sion for French chan­sons, im­pen­e­tra­ble cin­ema and books about dy­ing poets. Though his con­tem­po­raries re­gard him as a hope­less case, he feels that he might have a chance with the pret­ti­est girl in school.

You can see shreds of the char­ac­ter in Rush­more, Billy Liar, Harold and Maude and the re­cent Youth in Revolt. I sup­pose we shouldn’t be sur­prised that Oliv­ers just keep pop­ping up. More than a few film-mak­ers will have lived just that life. Among the phrases rarely

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heard at movie di­rec­tor con­ven­tions are “Yes, I, too, was a quar­ter­back” and “I broke noses for sport.”

Hap­pily, Richard Ayoade, hith­erto best known as a comic ac­tor, has brought fresh en­er­gies and un­usual di­rec­tions to his adap­ta­tion of Joe Dun­thorne’s ac­claimed novel Sub­ma­rine. Part Catcher in the Rye, part Adrian Mole, the story has been trans­lated into an imag­i­na­tively twisted – if de­lib­er­ately suf­fo­cat­ing – dream world of soupy clouds, in­tim­i­dat­ing wall­pa­per and flimsy do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­ture. Swansea has rarely seemed so un­set­tling.

The film be­gins with Oliver (Craig Roberts) imagining his own greatly mourned death. In re­al­ity, he is a mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful Welsh school­boy, lum­bered with an un­der­achiev­ing fa­ther and a frus­trated mother. In his head, he is a minia­ture amal­gam of JeanPaul Sartre, Jac­ques Brel and David Niven.

In the open­ing sec­tion, re­veal­ing him­self to be no saint, Oliver al­lows him­self to be drawn into bul­ly­ing an odd girl at school and, some­what to his own sur­prise, he man­ages to win over the smart, stroppy Jor­dana Be­van (Yas­min Paige). What’s the Welsh for Nou­velle Vague? Never mind. A loose-limbed fal­ter­ing ro­mance plays it­self out be­neath the tow­er­ing chim­neys and protes­tant skies.

Though Jor­dana can be cruel and dis­mis­sive, as events un­furl, and we learn of her prob­lems at home, Craig’s moral cow­ardice iden­ti­fies him as the less ma­ture of the two.

Mean­while, trou­bling events are un­fold­ing next door. The Tates’ new neigh­bour, Graham Purvis (a hi­lar­i­ous Paddy Con­si­dine), turns out to be a trav­el­ling men­tal­ist with a the­atri­cal mul­let and a propen­sity to­wards grandiose hand ges­tures. Oliver comes to suspect that his mother may be hav­ing an af­fair with the show­man and plots an ill-con­ceived re­venge.

Oliver’s par­ents are, in­deed, un­happy. His pleas­ant, in­ef­fec­tive fa­ther (the des­per­ately sad Noah Tay­lor), a marine bi­ol­o­gist, has be­come ad­dicted to the easy life. His mother (re­strained Sally Hawkins) al­lows des­per­a­tion to leak out of ev­ery blocked pore.

The story has the mak­ings of a som­bre, nat­u­ral­is­tic com­edy – Mike Leigh by way of Alan Sil­li­toe – but Ayoade, who, as a star of The IT Crowd, knows a thing or two about sur­re­al­ism, brings an in­vig­o­rat­ing streak of mi­nor-key oth­er­world­li­ness to the pic­ture. Em­ploy­ing freak­ish cam­era an­gles, mak­ing good use of orig­i­nal songs by Arc­tic Mon­keys’ Alex Turner, Ayoade sk­il­fully bats away any lurk­ing com­par­isons to Wes An­der­son.

Whereas the Amer­i­can An­der­son drew his aes­thetic from the New Yorker mag­a­zine, Ayoade looks to have spent more time ob­serv­ing fly­blown 1970s Bri­tish TV and Rus­sian films about rot­ting nu­clear waste plants. Sub­ma­rine is cer­tainly very funny, but it also has a sur­pris­ingly scary qual­ity to it.

Ayoade is helped in his ef­forts by the sturdy cen­tral per­for­mances from Tate and Paige. These days film-mak­ers tend to un­earth freak­ishly gifted ado­les­cents for such parts and, too of­ten, the au­di­ence spends more time mar­vel­ling at their prodi­gious gifts than heed­ing the ac­tion on screen. By se­lect­ing ac­tors ap­proach­ing adult­hood, Ayoade wisely side­steps any such ju­ve­nile grand­stand­ing. These old chil­dren are that bit sad­der.

If you were be­ing dif­fi­cult, you could ar­gue that – get­ting back to the fa­mil­iar­ity of the pro­tag­o­nist’s angst – Sub­ma­rine breaks lit­tle new ground. But the film is car­ried off with such élan it never quite gives in to stal­e­ness.

Op­po­sites at­tract: Craig Roberts and Yas­min Paige in Sub­ma­rine

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