Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2011)


Sally Hawkins (Jill), Craig Roberts (Oliver), Paddy Considine (Graham), Noah Taylor (Lloyd). Screenplay by Richard Ayoade. Directed by Richard Ayoade. Rating: 15. Running time: 97 minutes.

Submarine is a coming-of-age story rightly insisting that it has a unique selling point: its quirky main character. Oliver is a fifteen year old Welsh schoolboy with the type of personality that inevitably ends up making the film. He has a wild imagination, daydreaming in class about the mass mournings that he hopes would follow news of his death. He monitors his parents’ sex life by checking in the morning if the lights had been switched off on ‘dim mode’ the night before. He refuses to participate as a matter of principle in the bullying rife on the school playground, until he sees that to make progress towards his aim of losing his virginity, he needs to impress the girl whom he has a soft spot for. He reads and pretends to understand Nietzsche in his spare time, and ultimately comes across as the super-selfconscious Adrian Mole type whose adolescence is being put onto celluloid, the level of mental insight being as strong as that found in a novel because of the prevalence of revealing voiceovers.

Oliver is terribly amusing. You must have skipped your teenage years and be severely lacking in a human touch to not find his persona gently humorous, and his actions at times outright hilarious. Ayoade, actor in The IT Crowd and making his directorial debut here, makes clear his love of the French New Wave, and in particular expresses a devotion to Truffaut. That legendary director’s obsession with childhood is evidently replicated here, alongside the general feelings of joy, freedom, and spontaneity that characterised his work. Forgive the vague language, but it’s difficult to describe how strangely adorable Submarine‘s early scenes are, as Oliver and his girl walk and talk alone on the beaches and in the fields of Swansea.

And yet something changes in the tone of Submarine as the film goes on, and it’s frankly baffling what we’re supposed to feel about it. Serious things begin to happen, and whilst Oliver tackles them in his typically odd way, there’s definitely an attempt made in the filmmaking to depart from the early fun and make something substantially more dramatic. It comes across bizarrely, almost as if the film were schizophrenic. Comedy continues to colour themes of potential marriage breakdown, depression and adultery, and whilst what we’ve seen before suggests these should merely be tools through which we can focus on Oliver’s development, they also seem intent on working as ends in themselves, but leave us confused as to whether we should be moved, amused, or somehow both.

That this is how the film feels is too obvious to have happened by chance. Ayoade must have intended it to be this way. What’s hard to work out is why. As a whole, his work here is sufficiently fresh to warrant our sticking with him. I’ll be more than happy to watch how his second effort unfolds. But Submarine is undoubtedly a hit and a miss. Its virtues are there at the start for all to see, but then they sadly slip away.

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