Oliver Tate has figured it all out: Richard Ayoade’s ‘Submarine’
So what do you know? It turns out the Welsh are capable of sharp British wit. That’s one thing that quickly emerges from this charming and cleverly written first feature from Richard Ayoade, previously known as TV’s “The IT Crowd” computer nerd. (He is working from a novel by Joe Dunthorne set back in the 1980’s.) Submarine takes the familiar coming of age film and weaves droll fun with his articulate portrait of a low-keyed but egocentric teenage boy. Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who dresses a bit more formally than his schoolmates, is quiet and lacking in courage, but the star of his own imaginative and richly self-narrated film. At the outset he imagines his own death by suicide and we witness the fantasy in which his school, and then the whole country, go into mourning, with interviews, extensive TV coverage, candlelight vigils, and weeping teenage girls. This somehow sets the tone perfectly. It’s all absurd. It’s emotionally distant. It’s rich in self pity. It’s also very funny. And with his constant narration Oliver controls the film and us throughout its duration. We follow him through several preoccupations in strict order: getting a girlfriend and thereafter (quite quickly in fact) getting laid; saving his parents’ marriage, which he imagines threatened by the return of his mother’s first flame Graham Purvis (a comically sleazy Paddy Considine); and getting his girlfriend back when she deserts him. Along the way, he keeps a constant diary and reads the dictionary for pleasure.
Oliver, though smart and articulate, is dense and a moral failure at some very key points. He is willing to exploit an overweight girl to get the attention of his future girlfriend, Jordana (Yasmin Paige); and when Jordana’s mum is about to be operated for a brain tumor, he chickens out of visiting the hospital. He is deluded about the threat posed to his parents’ marriage (and therefore to the safety ad security of his family life) by Graham Purvis, a cut-rate motivational speaker with dramatic hair and leather pants, a tin-pot New Age “spiritual ninja” who pretends to have supernatural powers of perception.
Oliver’s parents are an ordinary yet very specific pair. Lloyd (Noah Taylor) is a depressed marine biologist, uncomplainingly living in a continual state of agonized but repressed unhappiness and chronically self-deprecating. And therefore, dare we say, altogether British? Jill (an unusually low-keyed Sally Hawkins) is plain, quiet, drably dressed, struggling at a workplace so mean that it’s a rule one must bring in one’s own birthday cake. She is so successfully repressed it’s scarcely even noticeable. It’s absurd to think of her pairing off with the rakish and boastful Graham Purvis, even though he is an old flame. In the end she confesses to Oliver, in front of Lloyd, that she has given Graham a handjob in the back of his van, but it is over.
Jordana his mild pyromaniac tendencies. Wooing her involves running around at night setting off firecrackers. An attractive gift for her is a box of big wooden matches, with which she likes to selectively singe Oliver’s leg hairs. Like Oliver, she is preternaturally self-possessed, but she speaks less. When Oliver finds Jordana’s mother may be dying, he insanely reads a book on pets. It says their their passing can teach children to deal with human mortality and so he resolves to poison Jordana’s dog. Fortunately the dog is run over by a car before he has committed this cruel folly.
These are just some of the rough outlines. But the pleasure of the film is not in plot details so much as in the staging and phrasing of individual moments. This is not meant to be the real world but a parallel universe in which language and rituals matter more than actual emotions, which we don’t feel and are not quite touched on, though we are constantly amused, almost unceasingly in fact. A memorable ritual is the elaborate one Oliver sets up when Jordana first comes over to have sex with him while Jill and Lloyd are out to see a film. He gets himself up and arranges his parents’ bedroom at breakneck speed the minute his mum and dad leave the house. Long beats pass waiting for Jordana. Then when she comes, she is put off by the tackily erotic setup of the bedroom and his overdressed slouch across the bed. She leaves. But then she comes back. The glossy and sometimes bright colored 35mm cinematography helps heighten such episodes, just as it heightens the drabness at other times.
Submarine’s absolute composure and wit are so perfect they can be taken too much for granted, but Ayoade is a very fine new comic talent. A Guardian review has concluded that he could be a “tremendous new voice in British film,” and hopes he won’t go off to make it big in Hollywood instead. This is true. It would be a shame if this Welsh Britishness got homogenized. Watching the film as an American, I am pleasantly aware of the infinite differences in perception of life and ways of describing it that Ayoade shows us. Submarine is a gem.
Submarine was acquired by the Weinstein Company after being shown at Toronto in the fall of 2010. Its US theatrical release began June 3, 2011. It opened in the UK in mid-March.
DIRECTOR: RICHARD AYOADE
WRITER: RICHARD AYOADE, JOE DUNTHORNE
CAST: CRAIG ROBERTS, YASMIN PAIGE, SALLY HAWKINS, NOAH TAYLOR, PADDY CONSIDIINE
RUNTIME: 97 MIN