For a whole generation, Water will forever be known as the film which launched Paul Heiney’s career in international cinema. As part of his BBC programme “In At The Deep End”, where he and Chris Serle had to take up various alternative professions such as snooker players and stand-up comics, Mr Heiney managed to blag a small part in this British production. He was meant to be playing a villain in Biggles but it didn’t happen for reasons which escape me yet seem, in my long-term memory, to be linked to being chased out of a farmhouse by Oliver Reed. Playing a mercenary called Kessler, he only appears for about five minutes, a wise move given his decision to speak his minimal lines with an accent that is vaguely reminiscent of Freddie Starr playing Hitler. However, when one watches the film, it becomes apparent that he fits in very well with the general scheme of things – his performance is just another dud ingredient in the overall mess.
In the Caribbean, we are told, a small British colonial outpost called Cascara is being assailed by revolutionaries, led by Delgado (Billy Connolly), who want their independence. The governor, Baxter Thwaites (Caine) requests help from the British, who send Sir Malcolm (Rossiter), a diplomat, to tell him that the British intend to rid themselves of the commitment. However, matters change when a valuable mineral water is found on the island and the Americans fall over themselves to buy the rights.
Water was released at the beginning of British Film Year, an endeavour which is now largely forgotten but which was intended to promote British movies after a number of high-profile flops – remember Give My Regards To Broad Street? It perfectly sums up what was wrong with British films at the time. It’s a comedy which isn’t funny, uses well known actors but gives them nothing to do and aims at all manner of targets but hits none of them. For Handmade Films, it was a big budget production – funds were diverted from the vastly superior A Private Function in order to pay for it – and by all reports, the hope was that pouring in money might result in an international hit. Cascara was created on location in the island of St. Lucia, although the oil rig scenes were shot in the exotic island paradise of Devon. The ploy didn’t work. Water flopped in the UK, took a year to find an American distributor, and it has been reported that executive producer Denis O’Brien was reduced to raising money by selling props from the film to anyone willing to buy them.
The film may have been influential in one very small way. Is it possible that Spike Lee saw the character of Jay-Jay in this movie before writing the role of Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do The Right Thing?
Well, probably not but you never know and Jimmie Walker’s engaging performance as a rowdy DJ is one of the more enjoyable parts of the film. The other reason to watch it is Michael Caine.
During the mid-1980s, Caine was at his absolute peak and produced good performances in films so dire that they make Water look like a comedy classic - The Holcroft Covenant and Half-Moon Street being perhaps the low points. As in Blame It On Rio, the sunny weather seems to bring out a very attractive streak of dry comedy in Caine and he manages to steal scenes in Water simply by standing there and underplaying. Admittedly, this isn’t difficult since everyone else in the film is overacting like mad but Caine is a genius at little observational asides.
Despite a couple of bright spots, however, Water never even begins to work. Part of the problem might be the set-up. It’s an incredibly parochial film, reminiscent of an Ealing comedy with some added drugs and swearing. The cosy world of Cascara seems to have little to do with any kind of political reality and whether or not it does reflect the real world of Caribbean islands in 1985, it doesn’t seem to. Attempts at some satirical jibes – Maureen Lipman’s cameo as Margaret Thatcher, Fred Gwynne’s yobbish oil magnate, the references to the Falklands, American imperialism and environmentalism – seem tacked on to the gentle comic world of Cascara where revolutionaries, police and government are all bumbling fools and no-one ever really gets hurt. None of this would matter if the film was funny but most of the characters have a second-hand feel to them; Caine’s dope-smoking governor, Fulton Mackay’s whiskey priest, Leonard Rossiter leering lecherously at his secretary, Billy Connolly refusing to speak and singing his lines instead, Brenda Vaccaro flinging herself around as the sex-crazed wife. The jokes are equally dated and it becomes hard to believe that this was written by the same people who came up with Porridge and The Likely Lads where observation was everything and characters had sharp, unexpected edges which surprised and pleased viewers. Their sense of structure seems to have deserted them as well. Rossiter’s character gets two introductions, the first completely needless, and it’s never made adequately clear why Caine’s character suddenly joins the freedom fighters. Worse, the ending is a shambles. Events don’t so much culminate as drift to a finish at a Concert For Cascara where Connolly gets to perform his outdated brand of soft-rock reggae with George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton. Not what you’d call a career highpoint for any of them although it’s not quite as bad as any of Ringo’s solo albums.
Looking at the IMDB, which even the most cynical of us sometimes have to do, I note that a lot of people seem to love this movie. I realise there is no accounting for taste but this completely baffles me. I don’t want to totally slate the film and it has to be said that Water is generally easy to watch. But it’s just not funny and a comedy which has a lulling effect, however relaxing, simply isn’t doing its job.
Water looks very pleasant indeed on this DVD. The 1.78:1 anamorphic picture is sharp and crisp with only occasional artifacts and some over-enhancement spoiling the view. Colours are very nice indeed with natural flesh-tones and the level of detail is more than adequate. As for the soundtracks, the best choice is the original Dolby 2.0 track which has clear dialogue and a snappy music track. The 5.1 and DTS tracks simply mess about a bit with the sound elements to no particular effect.
The only extra features, apart from a liner essay which tells us, optimistically, that the film “captures the essence of the growth of satire in the eighties”, are the original trailer, a minimal stills gallery and some biographies of Caine, Connolly and Rossiter.
The film has optional subtitles and is divided into 12 chapters.