Review: Submarine

Knowing and self-aware, Submarine might alienate audiences who don’t warm to director Ayoade’s offbeat sensibilities but the film proves there’s life in the teen coming of age drama.

submarine, richard ayoade, craig roberts

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Submarine is the writing-directing feature film debut of Richard Ayoade. It is based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorn and tells the story of an idealistic but inward teenager in 1980s South Wales during a potentially life-changing period in his life. He – Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) – has discovered love – his passion for mischievous high school brat Jordana Brewster (Yasmin Paige) seemingly holds no bars, while his parents have hit a difficult patch in their relationship. The self-aware Oliver has to juggle his own intimacy issues with those of his parents while staving off the amorous attentions of the family’s neighbour – a new age self-help guru named Graham (Paddy Considine) who Oliver believes has romantic attentions for his mother.

Ayoade’s film is intelligent and knowing but borders on the pretentious yet prevails thanks to its stylish smarts and an element of inventiveness. It also benefits from an offbeat sense of humour that appears rooted in a nostalgic if guarded look at the moment when idealistic innocence goes head to head with real life disappointment. The writer-director also throws in enough creative flair in his characterisation to put a gloss on the somewhat intrusive camerawork that threatens to derail the film just as we are coming to terms with the voiceover’s existential musing and episodically motivated plot.

Submarine distinguishes itself because its mixes quirk with universal truth. There’s a classic coming of age tale dressed in a black duffel coat that appears to betray time in favour of a momentary period in one adolescent life when the world is so alien and confusing that Nietzsche becomes the vicarious guiding light. The drawback with this diversion from generic American High School film convention – or, in other words, a lower reading level – is a character in Oliver Tate who not only alienates himself from those around him but the audience as well. But significantly, Ayoade ensures his knowing smarts come back to bite him when his relationship with Jordana turns sour. Certainly, the confident performances of the two leads aid our willingness to sympathise with their dilemmas even if we never really warm to them as people.

“Submarine benefits from an offbeat sense of humour that appears rooted in a nostalgic if guarded look at the moment when idealistic innocence goes head to head with real life disappointment.”

Richard Ayoade is a self-assured filmmaker which manifests itself both positively and negatively. The inspired musical montages, which are elevated to sublime slices of life thanks to Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner’s original songs are note-perfect, while the wonderful array of unique characters are original yet comfortingly familiar. But the posturing of Oliver Tate also appears in Ayoade’s distracting visual style (from inter-titles to hallucinatory dream sequences and self-referential camera moves) when a more naturalistic approach would better reinforce our connection to these slightly obscure, socially fringed characters. The result of which highlights Ayoade’s influences – a strong sense of Wes Anderson’s work and a definite nod to Harold and Maude – proving it to be much less original and idiosyncratic than it thinks it is.

But Submarine proves that there’s still life in the teenage coming of age tale and that the traditions of the genre can still be celebrated in new ways. Submarine certainly isn’t as original as it thinks it is and will isolate audiences who don’t warm to Ayoade’s offbeat sensibilities and overt self-awareness. But there’s a certain charm within the performances (particularly stand outs Sally Hawkins as Oliver’s mother, and Paddy Considine as “mystic” Graham) and the script is peppered with some great lines of dialogue that are likely to become the often quoted rumination of the eighteen to thirty “IT Crowd” everywhere.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Written by: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins
Released: 2010 / Genre: Comedy/Drama / Country: UK / IMDB

Buy on DVD: DVD | Blu-ray
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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    I’ve been meaning to see this one for a while now. Based on what I read and watching the trailer it definitely seemed pretentious as you mentioned. Since you gave it 3 stars, it still seems like it is worth checking out, so I’ll keep it on my list.

  2. Avatar
    Paragraph Film Reviews Reply

    Think I liked this a little more than you Dan. Oliver Tate is an awesome character, and for a debut, there were some very cinematic moments that jumped out.

    Mostly, it just captured the awkwardness of a misunderstood teenage male, which hit a lot of chords with me.

    I know a few Americans have struggled with the audio / accents to this, which is a shame.

  3. Avatar
    niels Reply

    Really great review. A pleasure to read.

    I also agree with pretty much everything you said, which certainly helped me enjoy it more…

    The camerawork does indeed detract from the overall experience and does not allow us to connect to the characters as much as we would have liked to.

    I failed to mention the music in my review of the film that I did a couple of months as I inexplicably seem to do more often than not. Like you suggest, it is one of the best aspects of the film. I did not bother to look it up when I finished watching, but now you have motivated to do so.

    Really enjoyable article.


  4. Avatar
    Pete Reply

    Nice review! I loved the film, one of my faves of 2011. Loved Considine! Very impressive debut from Ayoade, look forward to seeing his future work!

  5. Avatar
    Jaina Reply

    I saw this last year and got completely enchanted by it. I’m not an Ayoade fan as a lot of the people in the cinema were … having never seen the IT Crowd, but this little film made me smile.

    It’s such a different coming of age story. It’s so whimsical, yet so grounded in reality. A beautiful debut for Richard.

  6. Avatar
    Amy Reply

    Great review! I haven’t seen too many reviews of this film on blogs. It was in my top five films of 2011 and I adored it, I saw a lot of my teenage years in the awkwardness of the Jordana and Oliver. It’s a fantastic directorial debut, I can’t wait for his next one!

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