Cinema Review: The Deep

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DIR: Baltasar Kormákur WRI: Jón Atli Jónasson, Baltasar Kormákur  PRO: Agnes Johansen, Baltasar Kormákur   DOP: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson  ED: Sverrir Kristjánsson, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir   DES: Andy Kelly  Cast: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jóhann G. Jóhannsson

The Deep is a tender retelling of one ordinary man’s miraculous survival, and his return to normality after his extraordinary act. Those who like their disasters given the Hollywood treatment had best steer clear, because The Deep is a modest account that lets the story, as well as some stunning visuals from cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, speak for themselves.

In 1984, an Icelandic fishing trawler set out from the Westmann Islands into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Sea. In stormy weather their nets snagged and the vessel capsized, sending its six-man crew into the frigid sea. In the freezing waters they should have all perished within half an hour but, in an unexplainable feat, one crewman survived by swimming for six hours and walking for two more across cracked volcanic glass to reach the nearest settlement. The story of this Icelandic legend, named Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, or Gulli, is told in this new film by Baltasar Kormákur.

We first meet anti-hero Gulli and his lovable band of bungling shipmates out drinking in the long dark nights of the southern Icelandic islands. Even here the cinematography excels, capturing a grim beauty in the harsh and lonely landscape. The next morning, hangovers in tow, the ordinary fishermen set sail on their rusted vessel, through picturesque fog, to what will be their doom. We spend just enough time with the rest of the crew to care about them while Gulli’s story progresses.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is wonderfully cast in the lead role. When he finds himself alone in the freezing expansive ocean, we are subtly drawn into his frustration, as a ship passed within 300 metres of him, his sorrow and his desperation. There are even touching moments of comedy as he talks to the seagulls to keep the psychological effects of hypothermia at bay.

Here the bleak stillness of the North Atlantic is interrupted by 8mm home-movie style footage in 4:3 format. We see a heart-breaking sequence showing what Gulli would do if he had one more day at home, as well as scenes from his past surrounding the 1973 eruption of the Eldfell Volcano. Featuring the volcanic disaster as a backdrop highlights the hard times that have befallen Icelandic people, hard times that would continue with the economic collapse in 2008. The survival of this underdog fisherman then becomes a metaphor for Iceland’s survival, and we can see why the story has become locally mythologised.

At regular intervals, the sea temperature is displayed on screen, which leads to the question why not make this a documentary? Certainly, the main draw of this film is the captivating story itself, and it could have easily have become over dramatized. Yet Kormákur treats the material sensitively, and clean scrip and good performances contribute to a naturalism that gives weight to our grief.

At its heart, this story concerns the remarkable survival – not of an athletic super human, but of a modest, overweight, chain-smoking drunkard. The second half of the film deals with Gulli’s return to civilization, and having to deal with at first being told his feat was impossible, and then with being heralded as a “national hero”. Here the film stalls as Kormákur’s technique of telling it how it is fails to delve deep enough into the personal and psychological effects of Gulli’s experience. And, while first half felt well-paced, a fairly abrupt ending left me wanting more.

While the later parts of The Deep could do with more depth, and while its modesty will not be for everyone, the film’s stunning visuals and clean storytelling turn an already remarkable tale into a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Glenn Caldecott

93 mins

The Deep is released on 12th July 2013

The Deep – Official Website

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