Submarine is released in the UK today. You may have heard of this tale of young Welsh boy Oliver Tate, a schoolyard misfit who thinks he’s a literary genius. Whose two major aims in life are to lose his virginity before he’s 15 and stop his parents splitting up while he’s at it.
Directed by Richard Ayoade (after the novel by Joe Dunthorne) and soundtracked by Alex Turner, it’s received avalanches of hype and blanket critical acclaim. We went to the premiere on Wednesday and we can confirm that, save for a choppy final act, it’s all pretty much justified. In fact, we’re going to turn the hyperbole up to eleven. We’re going to say it’s this generation’s Trainspotting.
They are of course, two completely different propositions. Trainspotting was a grimy fantasy about a bunch of smackheads in Edinburgh. Submarine is a touching lyrical fantasy about a young boy’s rite of passage. A rite of passage which, as often tends to happen in real life, leaves him having learned little and changed even less.
No. The reasons are these. Trainspotting serves as a tentpole to an entire generation, an emblem according to which you can date your very existence. It was the tipping point for an entire generation of brilliantly talented British people.
The moment that, post-Shallow Grave, marked Danny Boyle’s ascent to Oscar winner with Slumdog Millionaire. When Ewan Macgregor most famously perfected his gnarled version of a leading man that he would subsequently ruin with Star Wars and the motorbike stuff.
There was that soundtrack; Pulp’s ‘Mile End’ and Elastica’s ‘2:1’ and of course, Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ – all acts surfing the zeitgeist onto British music’s top table. In Trainspotting, what would soon descend into Cool Britannia reached its critical mass of awesomeness.
That was a different era, of course. But Submarine feels like that same tipping point for a new generation of brilliantly talented British people, For a start, the director. Richard Ayoade has never been involved in anything shabby, from a comic actor in The IT Crowd to his inventive music videos for Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend revealed him as no slouch behind the camera.
But he’s still made the precarious leap to feature director with astonishing confidence – Submarine is imbued with a humour and skewed perspective on reality all of his own.
‘Submarine’ director Richard Ayoade
Then there’s Alex Turner’s soundtrack, a thing of beauty and delicacy that’s quite startling when you consider it’s only five years since his explosive and scrappy debut with Arctic Monkeys. He won’t thank us for saying it, but this is Turner getting comfy within the establishment.
But it’s Craig Roberts as Oliver who feels like the real discovery here. Geeks will have already been impressed with the young actor in TV’s Being Human (and its online spin-off Becoming Human) as teen vampire Adam. He has a splendid knack of detached awkwardness, like his soul is sitting a few inches back from his eyes that’s deployed in both roles.
If that turns out to be his default ‘thing’ then that’s fine, because it’s a ‘thing’ that you can’t take your eyes off. Boy’s going to be big.
And opposite him, Yasmin Paige as pyromaniac love interest Jordana is already a different action from her last major role as Maria in kids Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. In fact, the nearest thing Submarine has to an establishment name is Paddy Considine as villain Graham T Purvis.
So yes, Submarine is so Of Its Time that it’s untrue, but perhaps part of the magic is that it’s timeless, quite literally. Dunthorne set the novel in his own childhood, some time around the late 70s. The younger Adoyade peppers it with references to his own childhood, and so the specific time, as the specific place, is deliberately fudged.
The effect is something of a mood piece and a pop fable, only heightening Ayoade’s hyper-realist worldview. And it lets the simple truths of the story echo all the louder – that teenagers are horrendously self-centred people but their parents aren’t much better.
That people will usually let you down but it will still be okay. That setting fire to stuff is fun, and that studying the dictionary isn’t really a good thing. Submarine is a very special film.