Dir:- Danny Boyle
Starr:- Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Tilda Swinton, Robert Carlyle, Guillaume Canet, Paterson Joseph
Following hot-on-the-heels of Tim Roth’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s less than impressive tale of incest and familial abuse The War Zone, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach seemed a strange choice for both Boyle and his then rising star Leonardo Di Caprio. Garland’s none-too-subtle assault on the late-90’s trend for privileged Western youth to ‘find’ themselves in some far-off exotic destination, trendily off the well-worn tourist track, seemed to entirely bypass the ‘remittance men’ culture of 20th Century colonial decadents. For Garland the complacent culture-hopping of the 1990’s twenty-something is a ‘new’ phenomenon, in part explainable by the media trends at the end of the last century, that place an emphasis on commodifying ‘authentic’ experiences of the different, original, strange and unique. Boyle’s adaptation simplifies things yet further and in so doing creates a curiously shallow study of youthful narcissism. Here, finding one’s self appears to demand a certain living on the edge, adrenalin pumping hedonism. Di Caprio’s character Richard even hints as much in his overly world-weary voiceover – one of many pointless/aimless distractions in a wonderfully vacuous holiday snap of a movie.
For Richard home is a pampered place of comfort and privilege. Breaking away from home to explore Thailand, is all about getting as far away from this comfort zone as opportunity will allow. Thus Richard’s sense of adventure, of exploration, is predicated not so much on a sense of discovery and expanded experience, as on a need to redefine home. In this respect Richard and his ilk are the very definition of ‘tourists’, cultural vampires unwilling to acknowledge their domestic roots, yet unable to do anything other than parasitically exist in whatever foreign context they ‘find’ themselves in.
Adrift in a grubby, squalid Bangkok – all muted blues and sickening yellows, to emphasise the appeal and vibrancy of the fabled ‘beach’ – Richard indulges his youthful brio by downing some snake blood and engaging in conversation with a demented Scots skinhead (yet another yawnsomely OTT performance from Robert Carlyle). It is this latter character’s tale of an Edenic island beach that propels the clunky narrative into action. What contact Richard has with his surroundings is minimal, limited to interactions with Thailand’s tourist trappings and a revolving cast of young Westerners, not too dissimilar from himself. His single-minded pursuit of this beach now becomes the crux of whatever attempt at self-discovery Richard claims to be making.
Carlyle’s rather gruesome death is used as a first indicator of how desensitised to human suffering Richard is. A later ill-advised computer game pastiche sets about reinforcing this notion of Western culture having detached young people, like Richard, from their humanity. Forgetting the Scotsman’s pathetic end, Richard befriends a ‘nice’ French couple, who noisily make love in the room next door to his own. In persuading the couple to join him in his big adventure to find the ‘mythic’ island all the narrative pieces thus appear to have fallen into place ridiculously early in the film.
However the narrative continues its slow meander toward the island, in the company of its narcissistic narrator and his new friends, as they joke about shark attacks, take pictures of the stars and get just a little more stoned. This section of the film comes to resemble the very worst kind of self-indulgent holiday home-video footage, replete with risible candy-floss pop soundtrack. A little amble through beach resort Thailand, sets up one last little contrivance before the movie heads to its central island location. Richard ends up giving a map of the route to the island beach to some ‘clueless’ American compatriots who help him out of an alcohol fix. The glaringly highlighted nature of this transaction, makes it pretty obvious that these identikit American twenty-somethings will invariably end up oiling a later part of the narrative machinery.
Despite these criticisms and flaws the movie somehow succeeds in keeping the interest. Even when they finally arrive on the island and Boyle awkwardly handles a love-interest angle involving Virginie Ledoyen, there is still just about enough tension and mystery to sustain the viewers interest. One of the few superbly well realised elements in the film was that of the nature of the island itself. The island turns out to be home to a utopian commune of limited ideals and ideology, that seems to exist purely to serve the escapist needs of its members. However, the commune is surrounded by native farmers growing an illegal cash-crop, which acts both as external agent of threat and danger, as well as a tenuous link to the reality of the commune-dwellers environment.
It is genuinely impressive how little of Thailand is actually revealed throughout the film, mirroring the central character’s unacknowledged lack of curiosity. This is vaguely reminiscent of Boyle’s later oscar-winning tale Slumdog Millionaire which, although superficially more intent on revealing parts of Mumbai’s slum reality, somehow still manages to serve as no more than a picture-postcard from India (mainly as a result of the seeming disconnect between the protagonists and their surroundings).
The characters of the commune itself blend into one another with only a few of them seeming to be clearly delineated, among them: a black Londoner obsessed with Christianity and cricket, a jealous carpenter and his partner and the communes de-facto leader Sal (Tilda Swinton). The rest of the characters never stray too far from stereotype, including the three Scandinavians who will later feature in one of the more significant plot developments on the island. This is perhaps the point where film and book most clearly diverge. In the novel the cast of characters that form the commune are fairly rich, textured and intricately interwoven, thus creating much of the tension and genuine horror, as a society in microcosm begins to fundamentally fracture and fall apart. In the film we are very much left marooned in Richard’s limited view of the world around him, his observations frequently as empty as his inner world.
This inattentiveness to character proves to be an insurmountable flaw when it comes to caring about Richard’s predicament at the films denouement. With such an overwhelmingly selfish and egocentric hero, the film is crying out for some clear and established supporting roles to balance the narrative. Apart from those already mentioned there is little to counter Richard’s adventure fantasies: Richard takes out a shark, Richard spears lots of fish, Richard on the hunt through the forest, Richard as socially dynamic and stimulating company. Further credence is given to the idea that The Beach is a subjective study of a cypher in search of an identity, when it is considered how the French couple effectively disappear from view once Richard has fouled up his affair with Francoise. The film seems to imply that it is in fact all about Richard, that Richard’s insufferable ego is the instrument of dictation. This then could only lead to dire consequences when subjected to the egoless requirements of Tilda Swinton’s Sal. It is this tension between western individualism and some archaic notion of eastern collective identity that throbs through the subtext of the movie, but Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge, never quite manage to adequately expand on the movie’s surface gloss.