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Also known for the wonderfully offbeat and independently spirited spin on the slacker comedy sub-genre with ‘101 Reykjavik’ (2000) and more recently the Hollywood picture ‘Contraband’ (2012), Baltasar Kormakur returns to the barren, monochromatic Icelandic milieu of the former for his latest cinematic venture. The Deep is based upon true events which occurred nearly 30 years ago off the shores of mainland Iceland, whereby a fishing vessel was overturned during a storm and claimed the lives of all but one of the crew members.
This sole survivor was Gudlaugur Fridthórsson, or ‘Gulli’, who remarkably defied all reason and logic to swim for six hours in the glacial North Atlantic before enduring further extremities on land when walking across a field of pointed, solidified lava. Whilst a Hollywood interpretation would celebrate these near Sisyphean trials on the bodies tolerance, here his acts are assessed coldly under the microscope by a group of scientists who come to the conclusion that rather banally it may have been his unusually thick body fat which ultimately saved him; more a case of matter than mind then.
In many ways this is an archetypical bleak European repost to the flag waving sheen of numerous American survival movies and the protagonist only serves to further this notion. Shy and awkward in nature and full in features, he makes for both an uncomfortable and unconventional screen presence. He is a far cry from the appealing ruggedness of the more photogenic Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000) for example, though admittedly there is a connection between the films with the scene where Guilli talks to a seagull when swimming in the sea that seems to possess a striking similarity in both tone and content to the now ubiquitous one with Chuck talking to ‘Wilson’. Overall however, such sentiment laden schmalz is an exception rather than the rule and whilst there is also one incongruous and barely registered plot strand involving a potential love interest for Guilli, this is not developed and there remains a lack of any great revelation or upturn in spirits at the end.
This existential narrative does however mean that the cinematography is suitably brooding and there are some greatly atmospheric and symbolic shots connoting solitude, depicting loneliness in a similar style to Caspar David Friedrich. This pared down approach in a visual sense also perhaps inevitably permeates into the dialogue, which is sparse. Though consonant with its visual sensibility, it does seem to result in a real lack of dramatic intensity and character development in places. For instance with the opening scenes on the boat there is a sense that a certain empathy or at least greater sympathy may have been more effectively established for Guilli had the camera lingered longer on their interactions aboard, so as to become more acquainted with the other more peripheral characters. Instead, almost before there is a chance to learn their names, they are lost to the unforgiving elements.
Ultimately though, this lack of dynamism and drama to the dialogue and a marked sagging of general intrigue in the story may at least be partly explained by its trappings as a fictional imagining of a real event. Based upon the tantalising snippet of archival footage in the end titles of the real Guilli telling of his experiences from a hospital bed, one can’t help but wonder that this near incomprehensible and sensationalist subject matter would actually sit better within a re-enactment driven documentary format instead.