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