A man is washed ashore on a desert island. Alone, he tries to escape on a raft, but is prevented by a giant red turtle. A story of solitude and futility turns into one about family and man’s relationship with nature. And it manages to convey all this without saying a word.
That Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Ghibli-backed The Red Turtle is entirely without dialogue takes it necessarily to a rarified place – look, you knew you weren’t seeing Transformers – but what could’ve been a clever-clever experiment that left you applauding the form but checking your watch succeeds in accentuating all the little nuances that sweep you off your feet. It’s quite lovely.
We don’t know this man’s name or how he got here; there’s no explanation of his life beforehand, which by traditional narrative standards should be essential to make us care about him. He doesn’t even have a volleyball to talk to. This isn’t so much a risk as it is a declaration of intent to focus on simple themes and emotions: at first we see him trying to survive, inching up a tree to pick fruit. Then falling into a pool he can only escape by swimming through an underwater crevice so narrow I could hardly bear to watch.
Once he gets the idea to build a raft you’re on board, not because you’re invested in him as a character but because there is a universal simplicity about his situation, what he wants to do about it and how he’s going to try. Dialogue is unnecessary to convey this: all you get from him at this point is the odd sigh or grunt when he falls off something.
His first encounter with the turtle is where there appears the first clear sign that we’re not in Kansas anymore: it blinks at him benignly from the sea after destroying his raft, giving a hint that its intent is not hostile but that it wants him back on the island. Does it know some wider truth about his destiny?
Whether what follows is an hallucination or magic realism is a question you stop asking after a short while, because amid the line-drawn shells, palms and gentle rising of the tide it ceases to matter. There is a straightforwardness to the man’s circumstances mirrored in the simplicity of the drawing – little definition to the character’s body, dots for eyes – and given that all of his choices are binary, why bother trying to figure out whether they’re real or not? There’s a tree with fruit at the top, so who cares if it exists: either climb it or die.
Though there’s much to enjoy in the artistry, like the use of a fairly dull colour palette to emphasise the mundanity rather than the more vivid colours the setting suggests, the little gifts come not here but in the small details served up. The man shares the island with a cast of crabs, who scuttle up to him every now and then and archly deliver, through some little incline of a shell or angling of a pincer, a wordless commentary on events whose point is always clear and usually very funny. Like a sort of silent Greek chorus, only, y’know, with crabs. Elsewhere, a failed effort at sailing off on the raft sees him on a cliff bellowing out to sea at the futility of it all: a moment straight out of Cast Away but no less moving for it.
There is a gentle encouragement in all this to accept the scenario for what it is; indeed, the man must in order to have any hope of getting out alive. But we also have to consider something else, and we’ve little choice but to stew on it because the absence of words creates a meditative environment: maybe there is magic in the world, and it doesn’t matter much whether it’s made flesh or we create it in our own heads.
The Red Turtle is in UK cinemas from Friday.