Danny Boyle is one of the most hyperactive boors in modern cinema, the film
director equivalent of someone who'd take your arthritic father to a rave,
forcibly make him dance to the horrible music and claim to be promoting
social integration between the generations. He takes gritty works of
literature, which are filled with reality and truth, and shakes them up into
shallow feature-length pop videos. Obviously he paid attention in film
school, where they teach you conventional Hollywood structures and cheap
tricks that please mass audiences; if only he'd realise you're supposed to
move on after you graduate.
Boyle first trampled on a great book with "Trainspotting" (1996), a
grotesquely lively romp based on Irvine Welsh's epic study of drug addiction
in inner-city Scotland. Now the filmmaker, and his team of writer John Hodge
and producer Andrew Macdonald, have brought us an adaptation of Alex
Garland's "The Beach", in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Richard, an American
backpacker disillusioned by the tacky Westernisation of foreign culture. He
walks through the cities of Thailand shaking his head at the hustle and
bustle of yapping market traders, café bars full of people watching
television, and vulgar drunken tourists.
In his fleapit hotel, the kid is kept awake by the sounds of a crazed
Scottish pot-head who goes by the pseudonym of Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle)
and raves about a perfect beach which has so far been kept secret from these
ruinous tourist crowds. He takes a liking to Richard, though, and gives him a
map to this paradise before killing himself.
Richard and his French travelling companions, Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and
Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), do eventually get to the place Daffy promised
them, and settle into the beautiful locale, which is populated by young folks
just as sick as they are at the state of traditional holiday destinations.
Their community is rather sophisticated -- everyone has work assignments,
there are group meetings, huts have been well-built -- and yet more than
anywhere else these people have been, their island offers them the
opportunity to absorb parts of the world that haven't been trodden on. One of
them describes it as a "beach resort for people who can't stand beach
The dream doesn't last, because inevitably people do find out about the
place, and try to come. This invokes the violent anger of the dope farmers on
the other side of the island -- an added devastation to the lives of our
beach-dwelling friends, who have already begun to destroy their own peace by
developing hostile paranoia about their privacy.
In his book, Garland found all the right notes to tell this story; he knew
that the experience of paradise found and lost had to really HAPPEN to the
reader, so it had some emotional charge and didn't just become a pretentious
cogitation on man's tendency to ruin the gifts God gave him. His hero was a
perceptive, down-to-earth Brit we could identify with. The beach society was
made up of people looking for clean fun, not a bunch of freaks with some
twisted revolutionary ideology. And their downward spiral emerged gradually,
tragically, out of reasonable concerns that got out of hand.
Boyle and company, however, plunge enthusiastically into every pitfall
possible. The middle passages of their film should settle into beach life,
capture a feeling of tranquillity and make us hope that it can last; instead,
the happy part of the plot is covered in a short montage where we see
snippets of activity and hear DiCaprio's narration tell us how everything was
going fine. Consequently the madness and carnage of the latter passages come
from nowhere and mean nothing. The condensed structure, the introduction of
irrelevant romantic subplots and the brief dialogue make "The Beach" a film
of plot, which is a mistake, since it should be one of journey.
The production design and photography are impeccable, and DiCaprio's intense
screen presence is always fascinating. Strange, then, how bland and
superficial the film feels; I think it's because Boyle jumps around instead
of absorbing atmosphere, and is working from a screenplay without any
well-defined characters or key moments. The experience of reading "The Beach"
and then seeing the film resembles the plight of the characters -- they found
something wonderful, rejoiced in it, and then saw a bunch of careless
bastards trample it into bloody pulp.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic