Tuesday, 29 March 2011

We all Live in a Welsh 'Submarine': review, dir. Richard Ayoade

Joe Dunthorne's debut novel, Submarine, is a playful display of linguistic pyrotechnics in which the reader gasps at (and yet is curiously involved in) the increasingly weird behaviour of its narrator, Oliver Tate. Tate is an uber-literate adolescent who views his life as if it were a play or a film; his attempts to win the lovely Jordana, whilst saving his parents' marriage, fill the reader with a kind of shameful prurience as he makes inspections of the parental bedroom, leaves menacing post-it notes, and plots to kill pets. He is a twentieth-century Holden Caulfield, calling everyone else a phony without realising his own phoniness. But you still kind of like him.

Richard Ayoade (whom some of you will recognise as Moss from The IT Crowd) makes his directorial debut with this film adaptation. It stars Craig Roberts, the adolescent du jour who was recently seen in an episode of Being Human in which he played, well, a geeky and confused teenage vampire; and Yasmin Paige as the red-coated Jordana.

What the book captured so well was the weirdness of adolescence: you don't know who you are, you don't recognise the people around you; you are affected by things like books and films in ways that you don't really understand; but hopefully you grow out of it in the end. Thus one was prepared to forgive Oliver his lack of basic human empathy because his brain, like all teenagers', was fizzing and expanding. In the film, Oliver presented a blank, pale, vampiric face (which Roberts does a sterling job of) to the world, moping around in a duffel coat, making decisions to bully people in order to be cool. The loopy fun of the book was compressed. The plot too, it turns out, is actually very slight: so slight that Ayoade felt compelled to signpost the beginning, middle and end with (albeit stylish) cards: 'Epilogue', we were told at the end, and thank goodness we were because there was no other way we could have guessed, so lacking in compulsion was it.

The film was shot beautifully, but only in the way that most 'coming-of-age' films are shot. There was lots of running around on the beach, and sitting in derelict factories - adolescents are drawn to the liminal - but there was really quite a lot too much of that sort of thing, more like a music video really. One curious thing too, which shouldn't bother me, but does (mostly because of the book) is the time period. Dunthorne is a little younger than I am, therefore he would have been fifteen in the late nineties: I had a mobile phone when I was sixteen. But the world of the film seems to be more like the late eighties (which might just about be explained by Ayoade's age - he was a 1977 baby). (One very very minor point is that the Oxford World's Classic edition that Oliver gives Jordana has a cover that could only have been published in the last few years. I cannot believe that I noticed that, but I did. Never mind. I'll go now...) This shouldn't matter, but it does, for the niggling reason that we are supposed to be watching someone real. As such it seemed too stylised - perhaps as it was unsure of its subject matter.

There were some well-observed character touches, in particular Oliver's mother who played a repressed housewife perfectly; a mystic who thought he could see auras was funny but unbelievable.

A well-crafted film then, well aware of its directorial heritage (with nods to Don't Look Now) but one that felt more like a series of polaroids documenting an embarrassing teenage camping trip. In the end, with Oliver and Jordana standing at arms length in the sea gazing at the sun, I felt that the film didn't even begin to explore the promising depths that a submarine offers. (And I wonder whether that reflects upon the book itself.)


  1. hiya phil, saw it last night, hadn't read it i admit...film was quite slow but think i enjoyed it a bit more than you, kind of revelled in its awkwardness...laughed out loud at paddy considine's character but agree over the top - was he not like that in the book..?
    also re: era, FYI i read/saw interview - it is set in the 80s.
    tash x

  2. Hello Tashy, I suppoe I can't see why he would have chosen to set it in the 80s when the book's set in the 90s - it makes no difference really, but it was a bit odd. It's like Brighton Rock being updated to the 60s - why? - but backwards, obviously... My point is that all the outlandishness of the book disappeared, apart from in Considine's character, so you had this bizarre person in a setting which no longer worked; in the book everything is bizarre so it doesn't stand out so much. xx