The Beach
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tilda Swinton, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet, Robert Carlyle, Paterson Joseph, Lars Arentz-Hansen, Peter Gevisser, Staffan Kihlbom, Magnus Lindgren, Jukka Hiltunen, Jerry Swindall, Peter Youngblood Hills, Daniel Caltagirone, Abhijati "Meuk" Jusakul. Screenplay: John Hodge (based on the novel by Alex Garland).

A conversation with Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph.

Photo © 2000 20th Century Fox/Figment Films
ND: I think part of why I avoided The Beach in 2000 is that the novel felt like one of those books that already existed as its own screenplay. I couldn't see a reason to have that experience twice, at least not in close succession, and I bet the movie is more interesting to me now than it would have been then, and for different reasons. Before we talk about why, I'm curious: what made you eager to re-screen The Beach, and what do you remember about your first viewing?

TR: I'm trying to work out why a trip back to The Beach appealed, but for starters it might be one of those random convergences of several careers that have since spun off in very different directions. It's the Leo-and-Tilda-and-Danny project that you could remove from each of their CVs without damaging any kind of overall arc that much, and as such I suppose I find it a peculiar artifact. It's also one of those movies that seemed huge up to a year before its release, but is now a virtual footnote, right? Especially since the career peaks (at least in Hollywood terms) that Swinton and Boyle are currently hitting. Then there's Alex Garland's book, which came out in 1996, the exact moment I could have had a gap year and chose not to. I don't know about the States, but it was a sensation here in the UK, both for those who'd caught that late-teens backpacking bug and those who liked the fantasy of watching it all backfire, revealing terrible things about white rastas and the hidden curse of travel beads. The book was enormous, there was all the hoo-hah about Boyle doing it, and Ewan wanting the lead role, and Fox refusing, and the end of their partnership that signalled.

As for my memories of the actual movie, they're hazy at best, with a sense of initial excitement giving way to doubt, annoyance, and random video-game graphics, but there are plenty of images, on a rewatch, that felt much more familiar to me than I was expecting, given that it's nine years since I last saw it. I'd say Darius Khondji's brief run as the best cinematographer in the world ended here or hereabouts, having roughly spanned the years from The City of Lost Children through Seven, Alien: Resurrection, and this. I don't count Panic Room, which just looks nasty. And even in the case of The Beach, I have to say I think he's let down by most other aspects of the filmmaking. The voiceover is especially stupid, a Trainspotting hand-me-down for the age of Gen-X apathy, and almost every shot it's laid over, to include the film's first, would be more resonant, suggestive and open to ambiguity if you simply stripped the words off, which I kept mentally doing. Basically: Khondji does a great (if not overly ambitious) job laying on the seductive-dangerous-exotic-imperilled aura this film needs to bask in, and then Boyle, John Hodge and their actors respond by piling on a whole load of unnecessary noise on top.

Suffice to say I'm remembering the disappointments and plain errors here much more vividly than whatever else the movie gave me at the time. Are there more positives to stress, though? How did it live up/down to the book, for you, Nick? Since the problems of narrative voice and Richard's propensity for violence are such major ones in this adaptation, does Leo do at all, or would you have traded him for Ewan in a heartbeat, or looked further afield? I'm dying to know.

ND: Well, the book's a bit of a distant memory now, which probably helps the movie. Its impact over here wasn't nearly what it was in the UK, but it certainly amassed a cult following and enough mainstream media coverage that a few of my friends and I all found our way separately into it—though as far as I know, nobody slit their wrists immediately after passing on the hot tip.

To me, the problem with the very exciting and pulpy book that I had hoped the movie would solve was that the inherent appeal of "pure virgin beach in Thailand!" seems so inherently limited and temporary that it doesn't work well as a pin to hang any conflict on. It makes for some lovely establishing shots, and Darius gets to amp up the film's colors to the kind of jewel tones that his other work rarely allowed. But the suspense and toil of actually finding this rumored beach—which Boyle rushes a bit—have a tension that the beach itself can't possibly have, and once things start going sour, it doesn't make sense why anyone would stay. Certainly the movie doesn't make the human community itself enough of a "pull" to keep anyone in place, but nor is he willing to villainize them enough so that Richard's realization that they aren't allowed to leave could have as much charge as I remember it carrying in the novel.

Maybe since Boyle had so recently been so adept at making the drug-trips in Trainspotting so truly frightening and off-putting but simultaneously kicky and engaging, I was hoping he'd find a way to hyperrealize the sensual pull, the literal dangers, and the ethical quandaries of this scenario a little more. At the very least, don't you think it's a mistake of the script to partition the survey of life among the commune so fully away from the dangerous, glancing engagements with the gun-toting, pot-planting Thai mercenaries? For Richard and the Frenchies to commit so fully to beachy "happiness" while knowing it involves regular, entrenched exposure to violence and brute corruption would be more interesting than compartmentalizing those looming threats only toward the beginning and end of the movie. Though the risk of racist iconography would have shot pretty high, this approach to structure might have furnished an effective decoy by which the corruption inside the compound would have emerged more surreptitiously, and as a more interesting test of the audience.

TR: Yes. It's funny that Danny and Dari manage to hyperrealise the threat/promise deal nicely in the two great sequences in the pot fields—a gift to any lenser, tautly done. But when the Thai heavies encroach on the commune towards the end, I think their function is very baldly exposed, particularly in the cluttered, over-art-directed and to me wildly unconvincing setting of the main communal space. All too eagerly, the movie seems to buy into Richard's obsession with Vietnam war flicks—signalled with an Apocalypse Now screening going on in Bangkok at the beginning—and if anything amplifies it by turning these figures into crass stand-ins for those Deer Hunter prison guards, turning up and straight in there with the Russian roulette. It's silly stuff, particularly because Boyle misses a chance to bring them into the encampment by stealth at one of the key moments (the anniversary party) where the hippy-utopian pretensions of Sal and her followers could really do with some scary, real-world, what-are-we-even-doing-here juxtaposition. Instead it's all gun vollies, low angle shots, and incoherent chaos, that bit.

Especially this time around, I have serious problems with the whole beach community—basically, I loathe all of them on sight, which I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't want me to, and there's surprisingly little variation in the basic stereotyping of the Swedish fisher dudes, the cricket-playing (Telegraph-reading!) British dude, and whatnot. Like you say, the movie's real challenge is to get its conflict stewing here, and I think this larky approach, which keeps seeming to introduce characters we've already met by recapitulating their headline attributes, makes virtually no attempt to address this. By the time Richard is running around in the jungle like Martin Sheen meets Rambo, Boyle has inelegantly retreated into his default final-act mode of Trippy Psycho Overkill—cf. Eccleston in Shallow Grave, Renton vs. Begbie in Trainspotting, Murphy's bloody woodland spree in 28 Days Later, the Sun-God killer/whatever in Sunshine (Tim's review). It's not enough. I like the hints of Richard's moral alienation right at the start, particularly the way he closes the door behind him while regarding Daffy's corpse (though that's another good scene half-ruined by "this-was-some-crazy-shit!" voiceover). But this idea isn't followed through properly in the paradise sequences, and Leo, who is very uneven, can't do much to make Richard's bandanna psychosis actually work as a dramatic device. Still, I do appreciate the way his lie about copying the map comes back to haunt him—the way reducing it to a half-lie ("I only showed it to them!") actually makes the situation worse, the way Tilda turns on him, the dumb obliviousness of the new visitors, which sends a chill. That thread of the plot works, I think, because it's well-observed that a hungrily self-interested personality type such as Richard's would squirm out of lies by admitting only as much as he has to. And his terror of exposure, or basically unpopularity in the camp, is pretty real to me: if only we believed in the community a bit more, we might care more.

ND: You've hit on my favorite stuff: Richard's narcissism, the dopey implacability of the second wave of kids, the nervy exaggerations in the opening scenes where he meets Daffy (i.e., Carlyle, inevitably), the escalation of the lies that weirdly coincides with his unveiling parts of the truth. And the pot-field sequences are both very good, largely because I think Boyle does avoid pinning their sense of menace on too much stereotyping of the Thai gun-thugs. The embarrassing abundance of the marijuana plants is just as discomfiting, in its way. Or maybe I'm a prude. Anyway, his hiss and exchange of looks with the girl who almost escapes is pretty devastating.

And agreed, too, on the shortcomings you identify. The communards have no personal appeal—even when the film tries to push Keaty as the appealingly prankish voice of common sense, it doesn't work. Making the Ledoyen and Canet characters less appealing might also have helped: sort of a Defiant Ones, look-who-I'm-stuck-with dynamic instead of their anodyne blankness, though I'm glad Boyle doesn't dither too much on playing up their fuckability. Again, anything to induce some tension. For sure, the compound should have been dirtier and less cluttery. The "hook" has to be the beach itself, and the group's pretended mirage of peaceful isolation, even if they occupy a muddy, lamely engineered little sprawl.

But for all we're complaining about the film's lack of tension, I'm wondering if we need to generate some? I do like how the script's general over-playing of self-consciousness results in some nice piss-taking moments, as when Ledoyen shuts down Leo's ridiculous come-on about taking pictures of the stars, and though it tips the hat a bit too much, I do love Leo's initial appraisal of the group: "There wasn't any ideology or shit like that; it was just a beach resort." The trip back to Koh Pah Ngan is suitably bleak and disheartening, and I love that Tilda plays the whole episode as the bored camp counselor, forced to drive the sedan back into town for some batteries. By contrast, the refusal to haul in a dentist prompts some effective alarms, and I loved that the negotiations over whether to bring Christo a doctor after he's mauled by a shark played out in one unbroken shot, monitoring everyone's varying degrees of testiness (though sadly, on the commentary track, Boyle actually apologizes for this shot, admitting they'd run out of money and time and he didn't have the luxury of going in for close-ups). There are enough scenes and images and little accents that work to keep the whole vehicle moving, despite its repeated compromises and misjudgments.

And let's go for broke, shall we? Leonardo DiCaprio is a lazy actor of very narrow affects who has twice been led by strong, specific direction and great writing into some really strong perfs, in Gilbert Grape and The Departed. But you usually get much, much less than is promised, and he's particularly damaging to any role that depends this heavily on his vocal work or on his ability to play a superficially okay guy who's actually pretty awful (see also: Revolutionary Road). Departed aside, he just can't commit to the flaws in his characters, and he often turns smirky and arbitrary when the going gets tough. The video-game conceit here could almost work if he didn't look like he found it all so ridiculous, and the re-telling of the shark episode, which cuts into the actual attack at an effectively abrupt moment, might have had some chance without his shouty, Pacino-y improv line, "We will NOT DIE TODAY!"

Am I too hard on Leo? Am I just feeling bilious because Tilda didn't get more to do, or do more with what she had, despite her memorable take on the character as "equal parts Stalinism and aromatherapy"?

TR: Sorry, buddy, but in the throwing-down-the-gauntlet stakes, your contention that Leonardo DiCaprio is a lazy, overrated actor is not one especially likely to have me coming at you with fists clenched. I think I might like him a bit more than you in The Aviator, but otherwise we're stuck on the same page again, and having just yawned my way through the impressively redundant Body of Lies, I've got to say my demand for pugilistic sarcasm and pissy, goateed impatience is way beyond satiated for the time being. If I'll say anything for him in The Beach, it's that he's often most interesting when he's afraid, and Boyle does push him in the movie's most extreme moments into a kind of snarling animal terror that takes you briefly aback (and back to his Gilbert Grape hissy fits); still, for 90% of the time he's falling back on all the usual wise-ass mannerisms, and seems to share the script's timid uncertainty about exactly how self-absorbed Richard is meant to be.

I meant to bring up that mainland rice run in my last mail, since the Tilda-and-Leo liaison there is an innovation, not in the book from what I recall, and while I think I remember objecting to this on first pass as a sexed-up commercial sop, this time I decided it added a valuable extra layer and gave Tilda her best scenes. To add to what you were saying, I do love how she misreads Leo's paranoia about word getting back to their chums as post-coital performance anxiety: "Yes, yes, it was very nice," before rolling back on her side.

Can we force ourselves to differ on anything here? I think the movie's failures are all pretty obvious, but I'm glad we've managed to prise out some of its scattered felicities. Maybe I'm giving it a harder ride than you overall, but there's a lot of wastage here—good material, with nearly the right creative team, making a lot of recurrent bozo decisions which keep mashing up their better ones. I should check out Boyle's commentary to find out just how troubled this production was, because it underachieves in an unusual way for him -- even the two Boyle films I like less (Slumdog Millionaire and A Life Less Ordinary) are hardly "underachieving" failures so much as bad ideas socked over with oppressive virtuosity and misplaced faith in themselves. Whereas The Beach is a botch, but one I'm a little more forgivingly disposed to, particularly after talking it through with you and reconsidering what does work in it and is nearly or briefly inspired. If we're talking grades, I was in a C– kind of overcast funk when the end credits rolled, but there are enough silver linings here for me to stretch to a C.

ND: Disagreement at last! I think the mainland liaison is in the book, though I could be wrong. How exciting for our readers to have a question to settle. As for grades, I was in a C place until this conversation, which was pushing me back to C–. Though the ending of the actual film didn't help, either: that wretched voice-over again, this time strangely compelled to let Leo have a paean to how wonderful it all was before things turned bad. Though I enjoyed watching someone log on to check their e-mail on Excite!. Love a good period film.

I agree exactly that The Beach seems like a misfire that should have been better and subtly seems to know it, unlike a Slumdog that looks exactly like what you presume its makers wanted, however much that horrifies me. The fractiousness that followed the production, with all the tiffing about whether or not the filmmaking team had actually despoiled their locations, is more vibrant in my memory than whether the actual period of shooting was troubled, though I'm sure they cut a lot out. I only listened to part of the commentary track; doubtless Boyle's got more stories to tell. And Leo has often pointed to this film as a major pivot in his Green awakening, right, so something impressive and important did come out of this bungled but certainly watchable yarn. Even some of the botches are fun: the director who decides to construct a fleeting video game out of a paranoid jungle rampage is clearly the guy who bounces like Tigger when he wins an Oscar. Even if I can't help laughing at the Reefer Madness logic by which pot makes you hyperactive, crazed, and murderous. This kind of formal giddiness compels enough fondness when it's buzzing, for better or worse, that I suppose a C, if a mite generous, isn't totally out of the question.

Lovely klatsching with you, Tim—and thanks to everyone who read along! We've got several more titles slated for coming weeks, some of them bound to prompt more disagreement than this one did, or else regarding films whose ambitions or receptions endow them with slightly higher stakes. We hope you enjoyed this first venture and that you'll come back for more. Leave a Comment

N.B.: Point: Robey. This rather exhaustive plot summary of the novel clarifies that, in the book, Sal doesn't even accompany Richard on the rice run, much less does she sleep with him there.

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