23 March 2011


Occasionally, a director makes a feature debut with astonishing hype and anticipation around it, and that's the case with Richard Ayoade's first film, Submarine. I've been no different, even though I was more trepidatious than most. I don't like mumblecore much, and while the trailer was amazing, it made the film look a little mumbly to me. So I approached it with anticipation and wariness together, like I was trying to have sex with a shark.

In the vein of recent film depictions of Mark Zuckerburg and Scott Pilgrim, Oliver Tate is a young man with no perspective of the world in any terms that do not involve himself. He elevates himself in his own estimation by imagining the film of his life in a small Welsh town, as a biopic of a prominent thinker. The Herculean tasks of his adolescence are twofold- to prevent his mother leaving his father for a self-help guru, and to woo Jordana, a tomboy who likes to set fire to things, into bed.

I've been told I like to use big words on this blog. So it's with an appropriate level of self-consciousness that I point out that Submarine is a film that likes to use big words. Ayoade's script even deploys the word "atavistic" in conversation at one point, in an anecdote from the elder Tate that even has Oliver scrambling for the dictionary. I can't really think of many lines of dialogue in the film that I couldn't imagine being delivered by Ayoade himself, remembering his work in The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. But the unified voice in the dialogue actually pays off in some ways, because of our self-centred hero.

Having recently despised Greenberg, I realised while watching Submarine that I'm fine with heroes like Oliver, like Mark, like Scott, because they're all young. Well, maybe I'm not OK with Mark Zuckerburg, but the point stands. If you can get behind mumblecore, good for you, but I honestly can't stand to see coming-of-age stories with 40-year-old men. The levels on which Ayoade's film work all work because it's an honest-to-goodness story about growing up from adolescence, not growing up from being Roger fuckin' Greenberg.

My main quibble with mumblecore as a film movement is that it has always seemed to me like observation masquerading as observational humour. This film ain't that, because it's very funny indeed. The self-absorption of Oliver, played by an excellent Craig Roberts, rings true in a way that's both cringey and completely identifiable. As a teenager, all of your problems seem enormous, like they're going to matter now and forever. Sometimes they carry huge pathos, sometimes they carry subjective comedic value, but they most often feel very dramatic, because we are brought up on drama.

The central conceit of the film is that for the most part, we're looking at the low-budget film of Oliver's life, mounting the fourth wall and perching itself there for the duration. And it's an indie film too, Oliver acting throughout as if he's on a low-budget for life, and this is the only chance to get it right and tell his story. Let's hope it's not Richard Ayoade's only film though, because it's stunningly self-assured for a bloke who doesn't ever seem to come across as charismatic in the press he's done for the film. I've recently heard him decry unwarranted enthusiasm, so it's a good thing that all of the enthusiasm for this one is warranted.

The soundtrack by Alex Turner complements the gorgeous visuals, photographed by Erik Wilson, and the production design is pretty much unique too. It's set some time in the late 1980s or 1990s that you can't quite place, the brief nod to 1986's Crocodile Dundee notwithstanding, and set in a rundown Welsh town in which Ayoade's lens is more than capable of finding beauty. The contained but quietly vibrant cast works wonders too, with Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Oliver's parents, and a gloriously knobbish Paddy Considine coming between them. Most of all, Yasmin Paige bursts out of her CBBC roots to make a boisterous and enrapturing Jordana.

All of the best bits about Submarine work in tandem with each other. Whatever my usual problems with mumbly and quirky films like Wes Anderson's or Noah Baumbach's, those problems are somehow overcome with this one. I'm more at ease watching teenagers grapple with minutiae than grown-arse men, but I suspect it's also to do with the setting- repression and procrastination seem so much more at home on the British Isles. They're our main exports after all, but Richard Ayoade seems set to become a truly great British export, and his debut is far more ambitious and romantic and achingly brilliant than even the great trailer could suggest. And it's far more than just using big words, too.

Submarine is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide, and expands to more sites from Friday.
If you've seen Submarine, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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