The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Submarine

Reviewed by James MacDowell.

Director Richard Ayoade
Length 97 mins
Certificate 15
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Set in an unspecified recent past in Wales’ Swansea, Submarine follows precocious adolescent Oliver Tate as he navigates first love, his parents’ marital problems, and the challenge of constructing an identity at an age when he wants nothing so much as to be the tragic hero of an epic bildungsroman.

This movie must constitute an early contender for best British film of the year. While it has been characterised as a surprise hit on the festival circuit, it perhaps shouldn’t be too great a shock to see something of this quality from Richard Ayoade. Best known as a comic actor from British TV shows like The I.T Crowd and Man to Man With Dean Learner, Ayoade has also been quietly making a second career for himself as a director - both of television episodes, and of music videos. Looking back at these earlier efforts, it’s possible to see hints of where Submarine has grown from. Already extremely well-versed in mockingly aping visual styles (see: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), his video for Vampire Weekend’s ‘Oxford Comma’ also showcased an obvious love for the aesthetics of Wes Anderson and late-60s Godard. His feature debut seems indebted to all these contexts.

The director’s time in television has clearly helped him develop the deft sense of comic timing he displays here. Both verbally and visually Submarine brims with a particular kind of humor - self-deprecating but heartfelt, funny at the same time as it’s presented as a defence mechanism. Craig Roberts is excellent in this respect as our misguided but lovable protagonist, spouting delusions about his own tortured wonderfulness, but many of the biggest laughs come from Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, and particularly Noah Taylor as Oliver’s dryly depressed father. While this is certainly a comic drama, its amused detachment guarantees it tends to privilege the former mode over the latter.

Yet detachment doesn’t mean wholesale irony (as it might in Ayoade’s television work), and it’s here that the influence of directors like Wes Anderson becomes key. Submarine is perhaps the first British film that can be uncomplicatedly identified with the ‘quirky’ sensibility found in so much contemporary American indie cinema (a phenomenon I've discussed here). Of the many traits fostered by this kind of approach, the one that seems most significant for this film is a tonal balance between distance and empathetic engagement. This is a movie that manages to walk pleasingly along a line that divides warmth from diffidence - both genuinely investing in its protagonists’ struggles and asking us to take them with a grain of salt. Ayoade’s clear debt to the French New Wave also comes into play here, with bursts of joyous youthful enthusiasm in form and content helping to counteract what might otherwise threaten to become a too wholly wry affair.

Its obvious excitement for the medium is one of the things that lifts Submarine above so many flat British contemporaries, but also what can sometimes get it into trouble; Ayoade isn’t immune to the trap of the overeager first-time auteur, and not every directorial flourish feels warranted. Finally though, despite the occasional misstep or too-pointed allusion, this is a fresh, fun, and melancholically beautiful little film that sees the appearance of both a now-familiar mode and an idiosyncratic new talent talent on the UK scene.

This review was published on March 19, 2011.

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