Wednesday, 8 December 2010

CINECITY: 'Submarine' review:

Richard Ayoade is a very funny man. Once president of the Cambridge University Footlights (a role previously held by such luminaries as Peter Cook, Eric Idle, David Mitchell and (oddly) film critic Peter Bradshaw), Ayoade has established himself as a leading figure of British television comedy. He is best known for his role as Maurice Moss in Graham Linehan's once-good-now-terrible 'The IT Crowd', but has also appeared in the likes of 'The Mighty Boosh', 'Nathan Barley' and 'Time Trumpet'. Added to that, he co-wrote and starred in 80s sci-fi pastiche 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace' and spoof chat show 'Man to Man with Dean Learner' - both as the same character. To my mind he is so gifted a comic performer that he even lit up the execrable British comedy film 'Bunny and the Bull' last year, with an all-too-brief cameo role (the film's sole highlight). Now, following a stint directing music videos for the like of the Arctic Monkeys, he has gone behind the camera to direct his debut feature film 'Submarine', which received its premiere in Toronto in September and closed Brighton's Cinecity Film Festival on Sunday evening.

For his maiden feature film the comic actor has chosen to adapt Joe Dunthorne's 2008 novel 'Submarine', which follows Welsh teenager Oliver Tate as he tries to lose his virginity (before it becomes legal) and prevent his parents from separating. Oliver is coldly analytical about his school classmates and (what he sees as) his parents failing relationship, creepily observing everything and ultimately understanding nothing. His delusions of grandeur and social awkwardness are depicted with unsettling brilliance by the young Craig Roberts. Equally compelling are a restrained Sally Hawkins as his mother and a withdrawn and quite sad Noah Taylor as his father. Another young actor, Yasmin Paige, portrays Oliver's love interest - the fickle and malevolent Jordana. Paige is, on this evidence, a watchable screen presence with bags of charisma. Also cast in a small role is Warp Films regular Paddy Considine, as a spiritual guru who has some of the film's funniest lines.

As you'd expect from a film made by Richard Ayoade, 'Submarine' is a comedy. But it is quite a dry comedy which comes more from the language and the actors reading of the dialogue than from overtly comic moments. In fact Ayoade is unafraid to go fairly long stretches without any obvious "gags" at all. Oliver's "ninja" next door neighbour Graham (Considine's guru character) is as broad as the film gets, aside from the sexual ('Inbetweeners-'esque) crudity of Oliver's school friends, but even then the comedy is never overplayed and the film skillfully avoids the all-out ridiculous. Some of the humour is pretty macabre too. For instance, one scene sees Oliver tell us, via narration, that he has read that pets are important for child development in that they prepare children to accept death. With Jordana's mother suffering from cancer, Oliver then resolves (with the best intentions) to kill her dog so as to soften the blow of her mother's possible demise. It is a relief to see, given his exagerated comic personae, that Ayoade can slip into this whole other gear and make what is a subtle, complex and overall human film.

Rarely in a debut feature do you find a director so in command of the form, as you sense that everything in 'Submarine' has been carefully played out in its director's head and translated exactly that way onto the screen. In the same way that the novel is self-consciously a novel (with Oliver referencing himself as being "the protagonist") Ayoade's film revels in the fact that it is a film, as Oliver talks about the camera techniques the film must implement if it is to tell his story. His megalomania draws obvious parallels with Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer from the Wes Anderson film 'Rushmore' and other clear Anderson parallels are visible in terms of the films clean and colourful intertitles as well as in Ayoade's use of zooms and tracking shots. Also present is the same love of precision and detail, although these visual motifs and affectations probably owe more to the two filmmaker's shared love of the French New Wave than anything else. Oddly though, the film 'Submarine' most reminded me of was Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' with Oliver's narration recounting his darker thoughts and actions with the same cheerful amorality of Malcolm McDowell's Alex.

'Submarine' is as sweet and at times unsettling as it is beautifully made and wonderfully acted. It is funny - but not too funny - and also melancholic and above all truthful, in spite of that fact that it takes place in a reality heightened by its narrator's ego. When Noah Taylor (a Hove local) introduced the film to the Cinecity crowd at the weekend, he heralded Richard Ayoade as an important British filmmaker for the future. Before the film rolled that might have just sounded like polite hyperbole. After it finished, to a rapturous ovation, I was left in little doubt that he was right.

Now Richard Ayoade joins fellow British comedians (and sometime collaborators) Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris in making a terrific debut film, I am left to wonder: with the bar raised impossibly high, what can we expect from their next efforts? I am certainly excited to find out.

'Submarine' is released in the UK in March next year and is not yet rated by the BBFC. No trailer is currently available.

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