Submarine is a story for grown-ups to remind us of the angst of being a teenager. It’s set in 1980’s Wales and is relayed to us in first-person narrative by 15 year old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). His two main concerns are, as he tells us, losing his virginity to his standoffish girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, strangely enough, the depleting sex life of his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor). To make matters worse his family’s strange, new age spiritualist next door neighbor Graham (Paddy Considine) turns out to be an old flame of Oliver’s mother.
Submarine may be Richard Ayoade’s first cinematic directorial offering, however, he did also direct the hilarious TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Both have a very similar feel, possessing a dark misc-en-scene despite their comedic scripts. The use of lighting and music reminded me of a modern day color version of a film noir, while Jordana always wearing her red duffel jacket was reminiscent to me of the “femme fatale.” And as with any good film noir, the music plays a huge part in the ambience of the dramatic scenes throughout.
The edit of Submarine is highly stylized as well, creating many beautiful images, such as Jordana running with a firecracker, which stayed with me long after I left the cinema. The successful execution of this high stylization is a credit to Ayoade, as taking such a risk could have led to the film coming across as self indulgent. Instead of it being a crutch to disguise a weak plot, it aids it (as it should). As Oliver over refines and romanticizes everything in his mind — playing out his life in his head as if he is the main character in a film — it is only right that the film itself should reflect this. That way we are truly living the main characters experience with him.
Oliver’s middle class parents cut a very boring cardboard existence when seen through his eyes, especially in contrast to the beautiful representations of all other aspects of his life in his head. The increasing distance growing between his parents only becomes obvious to him by the evidence he finds during his “routine searches” of their bedroom. As most parents do, they try to keep their problems hidden from him and he only sees what they want him to see (i.e., a happy faà§ade). Even the most shocking of news gets delivered to Oliver in the most business-like manner with as little emotional information as possible as that’s probably what they deem best for him. However, in his teenage self obsessed mind, this only adds to his feelings of isolation.
As the story progresses Oliver’s dad exhibits signs of depression, never leaving the house and existing in nothing but his dressing gown. In a conversation with Oliver at the dinner table, his dad describes his depression as feeling like being under water. Ayoade represents this beautifully by creating an underwater feeling in the confines of their house — it’s dark and lacks atmosphere in a way that I can liken to being on a submarine. The fish tank behind them at the dinner table adds to the underwater feel, as it feels like a window looking out onto the sea.
Oliver is a moralistic, articulate teenager questioning the meaning of life, as has every teenager before him. He feels like he doesn’t fit in and that nobody (particularly his parents) understands him. Submarine successfully reflects this angst, although I do think it slightly misses the mark with Oliver as he isn’t quite an accurate representation of an average teenage boy. He has the teenage angst but it’s mixed in with the expressiveness and intellect of a young man at university (check out his reading list). This is why, in the end, I found it to be a film aimed at adults not teenagers.
I would also say that despite it being a very good film I think it was marketed improperly. I went in expecting to see “the funniest film British film of the year,” but I could only muster a very minute laugh once and even then I think I was the only one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful film, I just feel it has been done an injustice in the way it’s been promoted.
Submarine is innovative, sweet and executed with intelligence. Definitely one to watch and it’s left me intrigued to see what Ayoade’s next offering will be.