If you’ve ever failed a test of character, this movie’s for you. Submarine is awash with fallibility. This is youth as you don’t normally see it on screen: spots and all. The teenagers are allowed to have acne and eczema, the way they do in real life. Every kind of blemish is relished. Love sits alongside casual cruelty. Friendship is blighted by thousands of betrayals. The setting might be South Wales, but metaphorically, it’s underwater. Like a submarine, the hero spies on the surface world. He’s very awkward on land. Mostly, he’s lonely. He’s funny because he torpedoes his chances of happiness. But we’ve all done that. Anxiety is easily recognised as a sinking feeling.
Although he plans to poison a dog, Oliver Tate is my kind of hero. He lives not far from my home town. His parents own the same furniture as my family did in the 1980s. He wears a magnificent blue duffle coat. He has a picture of Woody Allen on his bedroom wall. He is weak, cowardly, selfish and a fool. And, thank God, he is human. Oliver’s first love is not a girl with a heart of gold. She is Jordana Bevan, an arsonist, who refuses to hold Oliver’s hand, even after she’s slept with him. Oliver plans to poison Jordana’s dog, as a way of inoculating her against grief (her mother is dying). He also spies on his parents, to see if they’re planning a divorce. To say Oliver is confused is like saying the Titanic had an accident at sea.
He isn’t Holden Caulfield or Phineas what’s-his-name from A Separate Peace. When Joe Dunthorne wrote the novel on which Submarine is based, his most likely literary antecedent is Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Where Catcher in the Rye is a story of a young idealist cruelly maligned by a corrupt society, Adrian Mole is the story of a horny bookworm who’s desperate to have sex. Both are timeless portrayals of youth wrestling with experience. But only one is quintessentially British. If Oliver does have an American cousin, it’s Max Fischer, the heartsick schoolboy from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Max has more ideals than Oliver, but they both do wrong for the sake of love. Submarine’s director, Richard Ayoade, is clearly influenced by Wes Anderson too. But he’s his own man, like Oliver, and the movie has a very British sense of private lives imploding.
The difference is how people look. In Wales, we look deprived of sunlight. Craig Roberts, the guy who plays Oliver, is so damn Welsh-looking he might as well have emerged from a coal mine after spending several years underground. I love that Richard Ayoade cast people with proper, iron-deficient skin tones. And spots. Craig’s stunned expression is perfect. As his girlfriend, Yasmin Paige is every bit as authentic a teenage girl. She’s vindictive and fickle and quite delighted to point out her boyfriend’s faults. She also wears a lot of red, which is the Welsh national colour. And although that fact might be lost on everyone but the Welsh, she deserves to be placed on a pedestal right beside Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Oliver’s parents are played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins. You couldn’t ask for actors who are more human. As Taylor sits and watches his marriage falter, his face is like a folded sail. You can see his heart collapse inside him. There’s something about the way he speaks which reminds you of Stevie Smith’s poem, Not Waving But Drowning. As his errant wife, Sally Hawkins is prim in the face of disaster. She dresses like she’s been brainwashed by Laura Ashley. She’s susceptible to the charms of charmless men. Her confession at the end, as to what she did by way of cuckolding, is so British it’s like hearing someone say “pardon” at an orgy. She’s not the world’s best mother, but she’s winningly distressed.
To understand where Oliver’s coming from, you have to understand that there’s a place, near where Oliver lives in South Wales, called Mumbles. Oliver is not the kind of Welshman who drinks and gets into fights. He’s a guy from Mumbles. He wears a blue duffle coat, the same as Paddington Bear. Cowardice is so natural to Oliver that it’s frankly miraculous when he does anything brave. That’s why he’s my kind of hero. He’s like a bathtub submarine trying to navigate a raging sea. Two great leviathans – terminal illness and despair – try to drag him into the abyss. He’s stricken for a while, but he does find the courage to put things right. For Oliver, growing up is an unlikely achievement. Submarine is a tribute to unquiet youth.