The name of Richard Ayoade may be familiar with fans of British comedy if only for the actor’s hilarious turn as the character of Moss in television’s The IT Crowd, while others may recognise the comedy genius of Ayoade’s creation of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but directing a comedy feature film is another prospect entirely, and perhaps not one that the direction of only a few music video promos and a live feature for the Arctic Monkey’s would equip with the necessary skills and experience. Recognising the comic potential of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel, Richard Ayoade’s debut feature Submarine demonstrates however the keenness of the director’s comic talent, his deadpan surrealism, his love of classic French cinema, and, well, yes, it even makes good use of an original score of songs by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys.
The words “deadpan surrealism” and “coming-of-age” in the same sentence however brings up inevitable comparisons with the films of Wes Anderson, and they are comparisons that Ayoade doesn’t entirely manage to avoid in his approach to Submarine. The film’s comedy style, rather than the broad and often crude mainstream British comedy cinema approach, is likewise one that could be a bit of an acquired taste. Aoyade manages to spice up this Wes Anderson approach with some French nouvelle vague references – Truffaut’s The 400 Blows being the most obvious reference, but there is a looseness of approach and playfulness with structure (not to mention coloured block intertitles) that even evoke Godard. Again, not the most obvious route for a British comedy film, but Ayoade manages to draw from them the elements that best work in the favour of the film.
All this risks making Submarine sound difficult and even esoteric – and perhaps the approach is just a little too knowing and laboured in this respect – when in reality it is simply a very funny film that gets to the comedic heart of its subject. And it’s a subject that, as Wes Anderson’s Rushmore most successfully demonstrated, has a lot of potential for cringe-worthy comedy in the conflicting desires in young, inexperienced teenagers trying to get a handle on their urges, as well as some amount of poignancy for the helplessness they feel about a larger adult world that is beyond their ability to fully grasp, let alone control. As clever and intelligent as fifteen year-old Oliver is, as lucky as he feels to have won the affection and found some common ground with the mildly-rebellious pyromaniac Jordana, there’s a delightful awkwardness to their relationship – or at least to Oliver’s poetic narration of it, visualising it as a silent Super-8 movie of holding hands on the beach at sunset – and complications in fitting it into a real-world where his mother and father’s marriage is going through difficulties.
There’s also a wonderful poignancy to this as well, since, romanticised though Oliver’s view is and a little embarrassing at the same time, his idealism in relation to his girlfriend and his belief that he can interact and intervene as an adult in the lives of his parents, is perfectly the worldview of a 15 year-old boy, and Ayoade manages to capture the magic of timeless adolescence that resonates with Rohmer’s explorations of the theme, and with Truffaut’s in The 400 Blows. A lot of this has to do with the director trusting his own instincts towards the source material and running with them, but it also needs actors who are know where the boundaries are but are willing to overstep them where required. Every performance in the film then is wonderfully nuanced and balanced, particularly in the young leads of Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, but even more so in the less obvious humour and poignancy that Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins bring to their roles as Oliver’s parents. Paddy Considine’s New Age Guru, an old-flame of Oliver’s mum who causes a crisis in the family, seems like a more intrusive comic element, but there is genuine personality behind the character that just adds to the overall richness of the whole ensemble.
Submarine carries this off so well and with seemingly effortless ease that you wonder why British comedy isn’t able to do it more often. The secret is perhaps not just in Richard Ayoade’s ability to make the transition from small-screen comedy to a more nuanced and multidimensional work for the cinema, nor just the fact that care has been taken in the choice of Joe Dunthorne’s original source novel and in its adaptation, nor even in the choice of good actors willing to make the material work – although all these elements obviously help – as much as having a production team with faith in the material and faith in the director, granting him the freedom to take risks (and introduce rather a lot of obscure French cinema references) that get to the heart of the characters and the inherent humour, rather than restrain him with the usual commercially-driven formulaic restrictions. The references and similarities to the films of Wes Anderson with a little bit of a French nouvelle vague touch don’t perhaps give the film enough of its own distinguishing character, but they serve the characters and the material well enough, and certainly succeed in making Submarine one of the funniest British comedies in recent years.