A proper review of Submarine

Monday March 14th 2011

I’m not one for hyperbole (I totally am) but it’s a mark of Submarine’s total brilliance that it’s actually quite hard to write about it without regurgitating at least one of the half dozen stock phrases about how British cinema is on the cusp of a renaissance. This time I think I’ll go with ‘the best British debut since Hunger’. And given that Hunger came out three years ago I figure that’s still quite a decent compliment.

Like Steve McQueen’s brutal portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Submarine is a stunningly assured debut from a director already well known for his work outside of film. Unlike Steve McQueen’s brutal portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Submarine is a Richard Ayoade film about first girlfriends, familial relationships and the terrifying confusion of adolescence. Every bit as harrowing as The Troubles I think you’ll agree.

Set just outside of Swansea in an unspecified time period (although the art direction suggests an affinity with the mid-90s backdrop of the source novel by Joe Dunthorne), Ayoade’s film blends the drab reality of teenage life with the transcendently romantic imaginings of fifteen-year-old fantasist Oliver Tate. His quirkier-than-thou courtship of pyromaniac classmate Jordana Bevan (played to perfection by Yasmin Paige) may have all the hallmark idiosyncrasies of a 500 Days of Summer or a Garden State, but the brilliance of Oliver’s idealistic affectations is their complete incompatibility with the wank jokes and compass stabbings of everyday school life.

Ayoade cites Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon as a key reference point for the film, and now that I’ve rented the DVD from Lovefilm and watched it while desperately trying to spot similarities I can confirm that the comparison is apt. Both films confront us with deeply flawed but unavoidably seductive dreamers, so accustomed to viewing the world through their own prisms that they’re constantly forced to adjust their perception of those who don’t conform to their grand design.

Brought to vivid life by relative newcomer Craig Roberts, Oliver is tactless, spiteful and supremely selfish, but Ayoade’s script (a divergent but tonally faithful adaptation of Dunthorne’s novel) goes to great lengths to keep us on his side. Whether he’s emotionally blackmailing his parents or bullying overweight classmates for the sake of ‘giving it a go’, Oliver’s perverse charm is ceaseless. He could tear a bus full of homeless orphans limb from limb and we’d probably be too busy listening to the timbre of his voice to notice.

Speaking of listening (seamless transition there), one thing that’ll be getting the film plenty of attention this week is Alex ‘NME Coolest Man on the Planet, 2005’ Turner’s contribution to the soundtrack. Totalling six tracks, all of which have titles like ‘It’s Hard To Get Around The Wind’, Turner’s work on the film is impressively unassuming, forgoing any big LOOK AT ME I’M ALEX TURNER FROM THE ARCTIC MONKEYS moments in favour of understated odes to love, loss and loneliness. Still, modesty won’t do anything to impede the swell of anticipation from the film’s rabid hipster fanbase, who threaten to send Tumblr spiralling into downtime every time a new promotional still shows up online. Still, I’m not complaining: our Ultra Culture Cinema showing of the film sold out in record time.

Shot with dreamlike intensity by Erik Wilson, the film echoes the haunting elegance of Ayoade’s music video work while also conjuring an intimacy that underlines Oliver’s inner unease whether it’s perched on the edge of his bed or following him through the vast emptiness of his breathtaking Welsh surroundings. Some of Submarine’s most striking moments were captured during what the crew dubbed ‘Sunday Club’: a weekly gathering of Ayoade, Wilson and the film’s two stars, with the sole intention of having fun and filming it. Sure, it sounds like the sort of wacky shit the cast and crew of Away We Go might have dreamed up whenever the EPK team were around, but in this case you can’t help but suspect that the motivation might have been artistic ingenuity rather than a desire to pad out the press notes.

It’s always been my policy to immediately undercut the slightest hint of sincerity with ‘a funny’, just in case I have to do anything as horrific as defending my opinions at some later date. But with Submarine, probably the best film we’ve shown at Ultra Culture Cinema so far, I struggle to think of anything quite funny enough to subvert my honest attachment to the film. So I’ve done what I always do and let Twitter do the work for me:

On second thoughts, I’ll stick with sincerity.

Submarine: unreservedly amazing.