I didn’t know Submarine came from a novel going in. I didn’t know it came from the “Great Welsh Novel” until a few minutes ago. I was checking to see if the novel—written by Joe Dunthorne—was YA. Turns out it’s literary fiction, which makes the film adaptation, screenplay by director Ayoade, slightly more interesting, slightly less interesting. Submarine is a coming-of-age story for teenage protagonist and narrator Craig Roberts; he’s just an eighties Welsh kid who reads Nietzsche, literally spies on his parents, and likes a girl (Yasmin Paige). It’s one of those coming-of-age stories where it could be a Cat Stevens-only soundtrack and it’d just work. That sub-genre.
Only Ayoade doesn’t want to rely on the music too much, not soundtrack stuff, because music plays in an interesting way into the narrative. Submarine’s got a very tidy narrative, which makes the film feel like a literary fiction approach to a YA adaptation. It’s just actually more the inverse.
Right away, it’s clear Roberts is going to be a different kind of protagonist. His first big sequence is coldly participating in bullying Lily McCann to impress Paige, only to realize it might not be the best behavior when you consider other people may have feelings. It plays out in the narration and it’s great. Right up until the third act, Submarine is a very impressive character study of a wisening Roberts. It’s just the third act is a bunch of action montages (Ayoade and editors Chris Dickens and Nick Fenton seem to be fans of David Moritz’s excellent Bottle Rocket cutting) and trite resolves. You can be didactic, you just can’t be so obviously didactic, no matter how beautifully muddy Ayoade and cinematographer Erik Wilson shoot the film. The film’s meticulous in its visuals, like they’re going to sustain the narrative.
So it’s confident, which is good. It’s confident and ostensibly ambitious. The ending’s really pat. And cloying. And semi-cops out. But since it’s an adaptation, it was always working towards that ending, which affects whether or not it’s particularly ambitious. It’s enthusiastic.
Great acting throughout. Roberts is a transfixing lead. Paige is fine as his girlfriend, who unfortunately implies more than the conveys since she’s got to remain something of a mystery to Roberts. Though Ayoade doesn’t zoom in on the female characters, with Sally Hawkins (who’s subtly phenomenal) having to do the implying bit too. Submarine’s very much about boys and their dads. Noah Taylor plays Roberts’s dad, whose dreams of televised science communicator success have washed up because he’s too awkward and instead he’s a research drone. He’s great. It’s kind of an easy part because it’s a caricature but Taylor brings depth to it. Eventually. Hawkins is the bored housewife mom trope so it’s even more impressive how great she gets. The inciting action is her ex-boyfriend, a psychic motivational speaker played by Paddy Considine (who’s fine but not special), moving in next door. Old jealousies and flames rekindle, with Roberts trying to keep his world from changing. It’s all very epical, with lots of pseudo-cynically portrayed teenage hijinks. Submarine is an incredibly nostalgic picture, even though it always tries hard to appear stoic.
Some good jokes. Not the eighties kid homophobia, which doesn’t get used for jokes exactly but also doesn’t get examined. It’s just decoration, along with the casual misogyny and whatnot. Submarine, again, is a boy story.
And, outside the confines of that genre, it’s a good one. It’s not original but Ayoade packages it originally. His application of familiar techniques is always inventive, occasionally inspired. The writing is excellent, just not the plotting and then only because the end’s a whiff. Albeit a not ineffective one.