Submarine may not be what you are expecting.
The artistic poster designs, the art house trailer – could this really be the film debut from one half of the team behind madcap cult caper Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? A man who is perhaps best known as the nerdy-do-well Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd, or arguing with a tentacled pink head in The Mighty Boosh?
This, you understand, is not the opinion of your reviewer. Richard Ayoade’s directorial work over the past seven years has been a visual treat, mixing a broad range of styles across seminal television series and groundbreaking music videos. He’s even turned his hand to concert videos, with an award-winning Arctic Monkeys release in 2007. Since then, when he hasn’t been emailing the fire brigade to notify them of a potential inferno, or winning games of Street Countdown, Ayoade has been busy crafting a debut to be proud of.
It’s safe to say that within the walls of arthouse cinema The Cornerhouse, the film has a better chance of finding its audience than it perhaps will in the multiplexes. Tonight, in the Q&A that will follow the film, Richard is polite, verbose, quick witted and at times downright hilarious – every bit the comic genius he has proven himself to be since the early days of Garth Marenghi. He is also calm, quiet and unassuming, and genuinely thankful of any praise both he and his film – which he continually downplays as being a disappointing thing – receive.
Based around the novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine tells the tale of young teenager Oliver Tate (portrayed by Becoming Human’s Craig Roberts) – a somewhat aloof boy living in a remote part of Wales with his caring, but tired parents, Lloyd and Jill (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins). Imagining himself to be a literary genius whom the entire nation would mourn if he were to pass away, Oliver is prone to frequent flights of fantasy to alleviate the seeming pointlessness of his existence.
Fascinated by Jordana – an equally aloof girl at school (played by former Sarah Jane Adventures star Yasmin Paige) – Oliver begins an unusual courtship which provides the pair an opportunity to confront their personal demons.
For both youths are troubled. Unable to feel accepted by the world around them, they try to seek comfort in their families only to find both falling apart. Jordana’s mother is battling illness, whereas Jill has become infatuated with her new neighbour (and former teenage flame), Graham – brilliantly played by Paddy Considine as a mullet-sporting, psychic-babbling, positive-thinking goon, who performs ninja moves whilst receiving sexual favours, and peddles his nonsense in easy to digest vhs tapes to the local community.
Oliver’s struggle for acceptance is magnificently juxtaposed with the troubled manner in which his father Lloyd quietly resigns to his fate. That the pair both operate slightly outside of ordinary life, and react to shocks in the exact same manner helps set up one of the more inventive moments in the film – as the father’s influence over the son causes the latter to even mimic his parent’s actions, right down to the dress sense and choice of beverage. This is a family which tries so hard to communicate, but falls down due to lack of confidence in one another.
For all the sexually charged nature of Oliver’s courtship with Jordana, his parents are almost asexual towards one another and begin to drown when they try to support their only child at a time when they can barely look at one another.
Yet this is far from a downbeat film. There is a moment mid-way through in which Jordana is presented with three books which Oliver believes they may share a common interest: a collection of works by nihilist, existentialist philosopher Neitzche; a copy of King Lear; and Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye. And whilst there are elements of all three in the story, particularly the senseless self-destruction of youth that fills the latter with such a sense of foreboding, the mood is lightened immensely by the powerful performances of the cast and Ayoade’s immensely witty script.
It’s safe to confirm that this is a comedy unlike the kind its executive producer and surprise cameo star (we won’t spoil it for you – google if you must!) is best known for. It’s also quite unlike anything Ayoade or any of his Boosh-related cohorts have done before, though a slight parallel with Bunny And The Bull’s sensitive portrayal of grief and phobias does linger. Yet Ayoade is, as we’ve seen, a gifted wit – and this is peppered throughout the script, both via the lines the characters say to each other, and Oliver’s inventive narration, which even takes the time to remind you this is a low budget movie, which only a mundane existence like his deserves.
And whilst this may become a calling card to isolated teens in the same way Catcher In The Rye has, ultimately, Submarine is a far more optimistic tale, in which even the most feeble of men can have their victories, and even the most confident of creatures may fall if they make the wrong move. And by leaving the viewer with no real ending as such, but a logical conclusion of this part of the tale, Submarine provides a snapshot on a very real, touching story of loves lost and won, of isolation and acceptance, and triumph over adversity.
That the film, by Richard’s own admission, is not made in any specific visual style of his own, but through the eyes of its lead character, make it all the easier to fall into and accept for what it is. He cites Taxi Driver and Metropolitan as influences on its inner narrative and non-specific dating, which results in making a film which may perhaps always seem to have taken place in the near-past, rather than a particular time period. By refusing to be slavish to the book, and making the changes which he felt were necessary to allow the story breathing space on screen, he’s managed to craft a tale that draws you in and never quite follows the narrative constraints of mainstream cinema.
Factor in a beautiful score by regular collaborator Andrew Hewitt (who was responsible for the music of Darkplace), and five haunting songs from Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner, and the finishing touches to one of the most delicately crafted, rewarding British films in years are in place. Those who expected a cheap run-around with silly characters and overtly comedic situations will still be surprised, perhaps even nonplussed. Those of us who knew all along just how talented Richard Ayoade is, however, will be overjoyed that at last, everyone else is starting to realise it too.