Submarine (2011)

Most people will be familiar with Richard Ayoade from his comic performances on numerous British TV series. He’s worked on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace to name a few. Submarine, his first film, shows that he’s as, if not more talented, behind the camera.

Swansea at some point in the not-too-distant past. 15-year old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is preoccupied by two very important issues. Firstly, he needs to seduce, and then hold on to, the flawless-but-for-her-eczema Jordana (Yasmin Paige), which may require joining her in a bit of bullying and some light arson. Secondly, he needs to try and stop his parents drifting apart. His mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) seems less interested in her depressed husband Lloyd (Noah Taylor) than her old flame Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), who has moved back to the area and now works as a guru.

Based on the book by Joe Dunthorpe, Submarine is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Admittedly, this is the heart of the protagonist, which means that it’s a moderately warped, slightly pretentious, but unabashedly romantic one. Ayoade’s influences as a director are displayed without any attempt at toning them down or concealing them. The styles of Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson (especially Rushmore), and the French New Wave directors (Truffaut in particular) are homaged here with a wonderful spirit of affection and a dark sense of humour. One of the reasons why this works so well is that the film is completely told from the point of view of Oliver.

Roberts (TV’s Being Human) is spot on as Oliver Tate. Oliver is precocious, both cocky and awkward, and utterly sure that what he’s doing is the right thing. In his narration, he tells us that he is “the perfect boyfriend”, that he believes his intervention is required to save his parents’ marriage. He likes to imagine that he is followed by a documentary film crew, and pictures the reaction to his premature death (A banner reads “We envy the angels”). But he also admits to being lost, scared and confused. He has visions of his father quietly helping his mother pack her things to leave him. He’s also more than a little creepy, keeping track of his parents’ sex-life by the dimmer switch in their bedroom. “Half-way is good, all the way up is bad.” As the film goes on, he finds himself increasingly unable to handle problems that can’t be solved with a well-worded letter. Roberts hits all the right notes, he’s funny but believable, odd but somehow very likeable.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic. Paige is excellent as the seemingly cruel but fragile Jordana. Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Never Let Me Go) plays Jill’s loneliness and tentative relationship with Graham beautifully, while also being unnerved by her son’s behaviour. Taylor (Shine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who spends a good deal of the film in a dressing-gown, is heartbreakingly downbeat as the depressed marine biologist, who is not quite oblivious to the fact that his son’s on his side. The two also each have equally brilliantly awkward separate congratulations to their son on hearing that he has a girlfriend. Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes, Hot Fuzz) is hysterical as the leather-clad, mulleted, spiritual guru who might sweep Jill off her feet (“Ninja…” mutters Oliver, as Lloyd nods in agreement).

Submarine probably won’t connect with everyone; indeed, the success of the film relies on your connection with Oliver. For us, this was made easy by the excellent script, the superb performance of Craig Roberts, and the eye-catching camera-work. There’s also a nice soundtrack with songs from Alex Turner. It’s a little precious, with some flights of fancy going on a little too long, but it’s also incredibly funny.

A wonderfully performed and assured debut. Roberts and Paige are stars to look out for, and it’s good enough that any future film by Ayoade will be held up against it.


Jonathan Hatfull