Directors take note: you can all stop making films about adolescence now, because Richard Ayoade’s Submarine says it all. It’s funny, beautiful, imaginative and the final word on awkward, pretentious duffle-coated youth. In other words, Michael Cera’s now out of a job.
Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel of the same name, Submarine is the coming of age story of Swansea teen, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). A brilliantly-drawn caricature of teenage self-importance, Tate is one in a long line of teenage characters who are in equal parts endearing and exasperating. Narrated by Tate’s inner monologue, the film gently mocks the po-faced certainties of adolescence and gets its laughs by exposing the gaps between the real story and Tate’s overblown version of events.
Submarine sees Tate embark on his first romance with eczematous school friend, Jordana Bevan, whilst clumsily negotiating his way through a rocky patch in his parents’ marriage (great performances by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor). When his mother’s old flame, Graham (Paddy Considine), a new age motivational speaker, moves in next door, Tate takes it upon himself to resolve the situation, and ends up doing anything but.
Paddy Considine’s turn as absurd motivational mystic Graham is a much more comic take on the self-help roles we’ve seen previously from Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko or Tom Cruise in Magnolia. Sporting a mullet and leather trousers while spouting inspirational gems like “I am a prism”, Graham is the kind of man who punches the air when receiving oral pleasure, and as such, deserves everything he gets.
Craig Roberts is a great fit for the role of Tate, and delivers all of the teen’s ridiculously pompous lines in a pitch-perfect deadpan. Whether plotting to assassinate his girlfriend’s dog, or complaining about his mother giving hand jobs to mystic ninjas, Craig Roberts is as doe-eyed and straight-faced as a character from a Wes Anderson movie.
Fittingly for an adaptation of a book obsessed with words, Ayoade’s Submarine is obsessed with film. It’s a love letter to cinema as much as one to the vagaries of teenage life. As mentioned, there are definite echoes of Anderson, especially between Tate’s character and that of Max in 1998’s Rushmore, but the real cinematic homage being paid is to French auteur, Eric Rohmer. There’s more than a touch of Rohmerian navel-gazing in Submarine‘s self-absorbed narrator. For anyone new to Rohmer, his films revolve around indecisive people who spend their time talking about themselves. Sometimes they drink coffee at the same time. They’re better than I’m making them sound.
The film’s visual style can be seen to borrow from the French cinéma du look popularised by Beineix and Besson in the eighties. This new take on a trend that originally bought us the cinematic icon of Betty Blue has now provided cinema with two new icons to hang on bedroom walls, the duffle-coated, blunt bobbed Oliver and Jordana.
Like Ayoade, Tate is also a cinephile. He casts himself as the lead in a fictional film of his life, stages theatrical acts of revenge, stores memories as imaginary super 8 movies and experiences kisses as 360 degree rotation shots. In one scene, he takes his girlfriend on a date to see Dreyer’s silent 1928 The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, on which occasion he gives her a reading list including King Lear, The Catcher In The Rye, and a work by Nietzsche. Straight talking Jordana (played magnetically by Yasmin Paige) has no truck with such pretensions, preferring to spend her spare time setting fire to skips and singeing her boyfriend’s leg hair.
It’s an unsentimental portrait of teenage romance which stands out amidst the mass of insipid portrayals of young ‘love’ often seen on screen, and one which at no point descends into mawkishness. While the grey British seaside seems to glow under Erik Wilson’s cinematography, it’s with a melancholy blush. (Does the grey British seaside ever glow with anything else?) Watching the pair clamber about a beautifully bleak Welsh beach or burn things in a deserted industrial estate is honestly touching, but never gushing.
Speaking of gushing, water is one of Ayoade’s main devices in the film. From its aquatic name to the range of sea-related props scattered around the set and its heavy presence on the sound track, water is everywhere in Submarine. Its central purpose is as a metaphor for father Lloyd feeling submerged by depressive episodes, but more than one kind of drowning goes on in the film.
Oliver’s mother, Jill, is just keeping her head above the stultifying waters of her unadventurous marriage, Jordana is in too deep with a serious family problem and Oliver himself is submerged in the very murky waters of adolescent identity. Even Alex Turner’s original songs for the score seem to have a languid underwater quality, lazily strummed and liltingly sung.
It’s a rare thing for a great book to be adapted into an equally great film, but that’s exactly what Ayoade and crew have done. He’s made Tate more likeable in the film than he ever was in the novel, but without losing the character’s unlikeable, yet enjoyable self-regard.
Ayoade has stretched his cinematic legs using a range of tricks to deftly transfer the book’s visual quirks onto screen. It’s a good-looking, supremely confident narrative debut, with a wry sense of humour and a healthy dose of knowing self-reference.
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