Thursday 14 April 2011

That sinking feeling: "Submarine"

As über-geek Moss in the C4 sitcom The IT Crowd, the actor Richard Ayoade has demonstrated some of the most idiosyncratic comic rhythms in the business. Having cut his teeth as a director on promos for such bands as the Arctic Monkeys, Ayoade brings much the same leftfield sensibility to bear on Submarine, his adaptation of a Joe Dunthorne novel: this is teenage love, viewed somewhat askance. The setting is Swansea in the not-too-distant past. Young Oliver Tait (Craig Roberts) is a precocious paleface in a Paddington Bear duffle coat, detached from the majority of his classmates, yet yearning for Jordana (Yasmin Paige), an enthusiastic arsonist in a bright red ensemble. Their fumblings are complicated by the strained relations between Oliver's parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor), caused by mum's dalliance with a local self-help nabob who operates under the unlikely name Graham T. Purvis (Paddy Considine). "None of this will matter when I'm 38," our hero tells himself - yet the audience, who may well be some distance ahead of him, will surely be aware that, in love, you often encounter the same damn problems over and over again, no matter your age, however smart you think you are.

Ayoade brings an element of carefully cultivated homage to proceedings. Many hip young filmmakers have sought to replicate the ways and modes of the French New Wave, but few have actively sought out the exact same font Godard used to denote his films' chapter headings over his first decade behind the camera, as Submarine does. The headlong dive Ayoade's own camera takes into a bowl of custard at one point is a direct crib from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and when Oliver seeks to escape from it all by running along the coastline, we're surely meant to be reminded of The 400 Blows - although putting Jordana and her doppelgängers in a red overcoat also summons up the ghost of Don't Look Now. (If Ayoade is as nerdily encyclopaedic as his screen persona suggests, we might also see Jordana's bob as a nod of the head in the direction of the similarly coiffed Agnès Varda.)

Younger viewers may be reminded of Wes Anderson, and - given the middle-school setting - Rushmore in particular. Characters are defined by wardrobe choices: the youngsters by those insulating coats, the elders by what we might call Signifying Hair. If Hawkins is rather trapped by her period 'do - there's little room under that harsh Selina Scott fringe for the actress to demonstrate her usual charm - then Taylor's beard is precisely that one might have witnessed on an Open University presenter circa 1981, and Considine makes his Limahl-like fin mullet an integral part of Graham's bellendedness. There's an element of Anderson's self-conscious dress-up to all this - these are teenagers who act and speak as though they know they're in a book, or a movie (sample extract from Oliver's narration: "Her tongue was stained blue with blackcurrent squash; it smouldered in the cold") - yet here it all somehow funnels back into a sort-of true picture of the adolescent experience.

Perhaps that's because Ayoade locates an emotional core in his material thus far absent from Submarine's American equivalents (Juno excepted) - indeed, it's what keeps this vessel on an even keel when set against, say, the quirky listing of Miguel Arteta's recent Youth in Revolt, itself stocked with teenage Serge Gainsbourg aficionados. The cancer scare Jordana's mother faces, and the terror Oliver displays faced with his parents' possible separation, are the places where this comes through clearest - newcomers Paige and Roberts more than holding their own against their experienced co-stars - although Andrew Hewitt's score also matches its obvious inspiration (the New Wave work of Georges Delerue) for sudden swells of feeling. As we'd maybe expect from someone central to the detail-perfect pastiche of TV's Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Ayoade demonstrates a keen visual sense: director of photography Erik Alexander Wilson's compositions have the watery light and colour of faded 70s photographs, proving greatly more evocative - not least of drizzly coastal holidays - than Anderson's more polished, fussy aesthetic.

This, coupled with the protagonists' acute sense of being off-the-radar, may be where Submarine gets its title from, though there's water, water everywhere in Ayoade's film. From the stagnant duckpond in which hapless bullying victims are submerged to the gaudy fish tank prominently positioned in the Taits' kitchen, these characters are never too far away from that sinking feeling - the coats almost become lifejackets, constants to cling to - and desperately trying to raise their heads above an ever-mounting tide. It's apt the film should conclude with Oliver and Jordana staring at the sea, to paraphrase that old Cure album beloved of adolescent mopes: a moment of rare calm, leaving us wondering where the next wave - of hormones, of crises - will carry them.

Submarine is playing in selected cinemas.

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