Outside the Frame

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Film Review: The Beach

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What would you do if you had the key to paradise? This question is the basis of the plot to 2000’s The Beach, the film based on the book of the same name by Alex Garland. Here, paradise is represented as a secret beach hidden on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand, and the key is a map showing the way. A stunningly beautiful beach upon a lagoon hidden from view by surrounding cliff faces would be the paradise of many people’s dreams. A haven from which to escape the all the bad and the ugly of our modern lives. And to live in a simple beach community with a few like-minded escapists where life is simple, the water is warm and the sky is clear and sunny, certainly sounds like paradise. But where human beings are involved, with all our inherent conflicts and contradictions, things are never that simple. Even paradise.

The plot of The Beach is simple enough. An American backpacker, Richard, played by Leonardo DiCaprio heads to Thailand in search of something different, something he has not experienced before. In Bangkok he meets Daffy, Robert Carlyle, who gives him a map to the fabled “Beach”, a backpackers paradise. While sceptical, Richard, along with two French travellers he has just met, Francoise and Etienne, played by Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet, travels in search of this mythical slice of heaven. The beach paradise is, at first, more than they could ever have hoped for. Beautiful, intoxicating and dream-like; a place without a care in the world, almost frozen in time. But paradise cannot last forever. And sharks, Thai marijuana farmers and unwanted arrivals all intrude on, and threaten to fracture, the idyllic lifestyle of their little community. And no matter how much effort is put in, utopia is perhaps too big a dream.

The Beach is the fourth feature film outing from director Danny Boyle, who had previously entranced critics and audiences alike with Trainspotting. With an obviously talented director on board, and in combination with an exciting story and bona fide leading man in DiCaprio, all the ingredients are there for a highly successful film, in both commercial and critical terms. However in this case, when all these ingredients are mixed together, the final product comes up a little flatter than expected and fails to reach the heights of Trainspotting, or even Boyle’s later films 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

The scenery of is by far the best thing in the film. The locations used perfectly capture the tone of the book and set the mood for the film. The beach itself, filmed mostly at the famous Ko Phi Phi Lee, is mesmerizing and there is no argument that this is paradise. And when contrasted to the westerner-saturated tourist islands, like Richard, we just want to get back to the beach. The soundtrack to the film is similarly great for capturing the essence of the film. Spinning Away by Sugar Ray, and Porcelain by Moby, are the two standout tracks, and even when heard away from the film, still immediately conjure up imaginings of white sandy beaches and turquoise-coloured water.

The cast of the film do a solid job on the whole. Robert Carlyle is by far the standout in the brief but rather insane role of Daffy, and Tilda Swinton is great as the icy, manipulative Sal. Paterson Joseph and Guillaume Canet do well as Keaty and Etienne respectively, but Virginie Ledoyen, while, absolutely beautiful, is a little flat as the alluring Francoise. Leonardo DiCaprio as the narrator and protagonist Richard is for lack of a better word, sufficient. There is no doubting that DiCaprio is a very good actor, but there problem here is he just does not seem to fit the role of Richard, especially in comparison with the Richard from the novel, who was so central to understanding the meaning of the story. He does manage to portray the craziness of Richard as his sanity starts to slip, but too often he comes out as whiny and brittle. In the book Richard is English, while in the film he is an American, which is the start of the problem. It is that English stoicism and dry wit that drives the character in Garland’s text, and helps us to follow Richard into the world of the surreal as the cracks in life at the beach start to appear. Instead DiCaprio’s Richard seems to jar with his surroundings and it is hard to believe his place in this paradise. It makes one wonder how Boyle’s first choice of Ewen McGregor would have fared in his place.

The narrative is also a bit shaky at times. As with so many novels adapted for the screen, there seems to be something lost in translation. Fans of the book will lament the absence of the character Jed and be critical of Richard’s relationships with the main female characters, Francoise and beach community leader Sal, Tilda Swinton, which seem as though some studio influence was pressed upon Boyle to “sex” it up. However, perhaps it is better to judge adaptations on their own merit and without too much comparison with their source material, after all they are two very different mediums that have their own unique quality. In that light, it is easy to understand some of the creative leeway given to scripting the film version of The Beach. However, while it is difficult to pinpoint where the translation got lost, there is still the constant feeling throughout the film that there is just something crucial missing.

So in the end the film actually does reflect the real nature of The Beach, as no matter how hard you try and how perfect the ingredients are, true paradise is hard to find.


Written by Dale Weber

Thursday, 9 October, 2008 at 1:55 pm

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