Submarine is likely to split audiences but although I’ve heard people say that it has no likeable characters and isn’t funny, I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of very positive reviews on IMDB. I enjoyed it – though I found it more poignant than funny. I did snigger and chortle a few times but I think it is younger audiences who have found it hilarious.
Submarine is Oliver’s story – Oliver Tait, 15 year-old Welsh schoolboy, pre-occupied, pretentious, egocentric etc. He literally narrates his own story. This could be infuriating if you don’t like extensive voiceover narration (Nick doesn’t and he didn’t like the film) but it worked for me. Oliver (Craig Roberts) has two primary concerns (outside of his desire to become ‘cultured’). He wants to lose his virginity and finds himself in a relationship with a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). But in the midst of this emotional journey he also sets out to ‘solve’ the marital problems of his parents (played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins).
The novel from which the film was adapted appeared in 2008, written by Joe Dunthorne and immediately acclaimed for its original take on adolescent life. I’ve not read it but a brief glance at some of the reviews suggests that both the tone and the characters in the novel (and its first person narration) have survived the adaptation process. Submarine was Dunthorne’s first published novel after graduating from UEA’s creative writing programme. The Joe Dunthorne website carries some interesting material – including the covers of the book from various translations (e.g. in Russian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Brazilian Portuguese). This augurs well for an international film release.
When Warp Films bought the film rights their selection of a director was clearly going to be crucial and Richard Ayoade was an inspired choice. He was known to them for his video direction (see below) but to the wider public he is a TV and stand-up comedian. He has now become internationalised so there must be many outside the UK who recognise Ayoade as a supremely talented comedian and comic actor. I only know him through his incarnation of ‘Moss’ in the IT Crowd, but a little research reveals the breadth of his creativity. I hadn’t been aware that he has directed videos for several leading bands, including the Arctic Monkeys – which presumably explains the raft of Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack for Submarine.
The film offers direct references to the ‘authorial influences’ on display – J. D. Salinger, Serge Gainsbourg, Woody Allen etc. Many reviewers have mentioned Wes Anderson and the similarity to Rushmore in particular is quite marked. However, I think Ayoade is going back to what influenced Anderson and Allen – the French New Wave. The film’s titles and the use of intertitles/chapter headings are directly lifted from Godard along with the literary and cinematic referencing. But in some ways, I think that the true auteurist link is to Truffaut – not least because of the first person narration and literary adaptation, the repeated shots of Oliver running across the shore à la Les quatre cents coups and the deadly seriousness of Oliver/Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s young alter ego in several films). The scene in which Oliver takes Jordana to a screening of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (1928) after first plying her with Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful pastiche of Godard/Truffaut topped off with a joke. The direct reference is to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) in which Nana (Anna Karina) goes to a screening of the same film. Jordana, of course, has been given a version of the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina hairstyle to complete the allusion. So, Ayoade is just as clever as Oliver – but a lot more playful.
Setting and Representation
Dunthorne’s story was set in South Wales and Submarine was produced with funding from both The Wales Creative IP Fund and The Film Agency for Wales. The film was shot in a Swansea school and around Barry Island (location for UK TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey). I think this setting is important as it allows a range of locales from the funfair to industrial sites, rather comfortable suburbia to the windswept shore. The locale also becomes a little mysterious or at least ‘other worldly’ because the narrative is not set in a specific time period. ‘Sometime in the 1980s’ is one possibility but the usual indicators – cars, clothes, pop songs etc. aren’t used here to tell us the precise time period. Besides the two young leads the three adults featured are all made to look a little odd. Paddy Considine plays a pretty loopy character spouting psychobabble and wearing silly outfits with a strange haircut. The role reminded me strongly of the Patrick Swayze role in Donnie Darko (but not quite as dark). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is clearly suffering from depression and his New Zealand accent adds to the strangeness of his overall appearance (I mean ‘strange’ only in the sense of the whole tone of the film). Presumably this is also part of how Oliver views his parents. I felt sorry for Sally Hawkins who is asked to play Oliver’s mother. She often seems to get unsympathetic roles (so good to see her in a positive light in Made in Dagenham). Here she is dressed in awful outfits in attempts to age her enough to be credible as the mother of a 15 year-old.
In interviews during the opening week of the film’s release, Richard Ayoade maintained a fairly lugubrious stance, stating that Oliver wasn’t a particularly pleasant young man but that the film and its comedy were more interesting because of that. I think he’s right but it is a gamble with a popular audience. The film looks like finishing its run with around £1.3 million from its UK cinema release. That’s pretty good for a film of this type and I expect it to do equally well on DVD. The US release will be June 3 – no other territories yet to my knowledge.
Here’s the UK trailer: