The Beach (2000)

D: Danny Boyle
S: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tilda Swinton

Trite, if well mounted, generation-X variant on themes and ideas from Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness centred on the experiences of American drop-out Leonardo Di Caprio (Titanic, Romeo + Juliet) in pursuit of a new-age myth in the far east. Upon encountering free-spirited weirdo Robert Carlyle (Ravenous, The World is Not Enough) in a Bangkok hotel, he hears the tale of a real-life nirvana, a hidden beach protected by the natural landscape from the outside world. There, he believes, a group of committed idealists live in harmony, isolated from the techno-fetishist, consumerist madness of postmodern capitalism. After convincing French couple Virgine Ledoyen and Guillame Canet to join him, he heads off in search of it. When they find it, he also finds out more about himself than he wanted to know.

There are interesting moments in director Danny Boyle's rendering of Alex Garland's best-selling novel (scripted by John Hodge), and some potent themes which have been thoroughly explored countless times since Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe. The contemporary wrinkle is ultimately less interesting in and of itself than it is as a snapshot of the mindset of late twentieth century youth culture, and even then it is not particularly insightful. Instead of the determined colonialist of DeFoe's novel, or the upright schoolboys turned savages of Lord of the Flies , or even the increasingly disillusioned narrator of Heart of Darkness, we are presented with a postmodern nomad actively seeking an alternative lifestyle in a quest to escape his social and cultural identity. Though he encounters much the same things as his predecessors, he seems to learn less from his experiences than one might have hoped.

The character's attempt to shed his consumerist baggage is initially lionised. Boyle reinforces the reading of postmodern culture as an hyperimagistic, sensationalist madhouse with the aid of energetic visuals, editing, and nightmarish production design. This environment is later effectively contrasted with that of the beach (when he finds it), an idealised, almost dream-like landscape again enhanced by ravishing cinematography by Darius Khondji. Yet the heart of the film is the realisation that alternative lifestyles represent merely another form of spiritual denial, especially when those who adopt them are ultimately as steeped in their original culture as they always were (the beach people require modern comforts from Gameboys to tampons, and are revealed to be as petty, self-centred, and heartless as any bourgeoisie). As in Lord of the Flies, it is when the cracks begin to show that the drama intensifies. DiCaprio begins to experience doubts, which eventually well into full-blown madness following a series of sometimes preposterous and always contrived plot developments. Again, this is not new in and of itself, and the film has some tonal and even visual links with Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now. What is interesting is that our hero is essentially Kurtz, not Marlow (or Brando rather than Sheen, if you prefer), though ironically, his comeuppance is self-inflicted and requires no Marlow.

It is here that the story's basic weaknesses are most telling. There is not nearly enough force in its portrayal of disillusionment, and the characterisation is superficial throughout. There is no great sense of psychological depth in this restless youth, and his infatuation with the willowy Ledoyen (who spends most of her time decorating the screen in a bikini or T-shirt) comes across as nothing more than adolescent soap opera. Though this may be the point on some level, it gives little to latch onto when things turn nasty and the story supposedly becomes more powerful. It doesn't, because there's no real reason to believe that this descent into madness is any more deep than anything which has preceded it (and it simply doesn't go far enough). When the final scenes restore a sense of wistful optimism, the narrative's dishonesty is revealed. Rather than a final frisson of warning, we are left with a trite moment of feel-goodism, capped by a peculiar credit sequence where a series of gorgeous vistas of the film's location shoots make it seem like an advertising brochure. Likewise the fact that despite an original score by Angelo Badalamenti, the film is peppered with popular dance tracks even when dialogue is being spoken means that it frequently seems about to topple into a laughable mixture of fantasy and pop video. This type of thing could, for some viewers, overwhelm its already slim thematic content entirely, or, conversely, make it all the more enjoyable. This latter reaction would be ironic given the film's avowed attempt to decry the culture of bourgeois apathy, but it would be equally telling as an insight into contemporary audiences.

Despite these difficulties, the film is well made and has plenty of pace and style. Boyle and Hodge have obviously survived the ravages of A Life Less Ordinary, and though The Beach is still not as enjoyable or provocative as Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, it provides reasonable evidence of a worthwhile cinematic point of view, albeit one in search of something to say. There's a certain amount of worth in their approach, though, as noted, the basic story proves less of a vessel than it might for what was initially such a forceful voice. Individual scenes are impressive, and on the whole it holds together well enough to at least tell its story, such as it is. Likewise the cast do their best with the material provided. DiCaprio is a movie star of the first magnitude, and though he has been hyped to a point where his acting may become moot, he has proved himself capable of holding centre stage on previous occasions even when pitched against material (Romeo + Juliet) and pyrotechnic distractions (Titanic) which would crush a lesser man. His reading of the character is entirely appropriate, shifting from fresh-faced idealist to borderline psychotic, and though he does his best to invest it with depth, there is simply not enough there for it to be really convincing. His star power keeps the film going though, especially when it becomes evident that even Tilda Swinton (Orlando) can't do much with her tribal leader, around whom much of the later tension should revolve, and thus that no genuine drama is likely to appear. The ubiquitous Carlyle is very enjoyable in his brief role, and certainly makes more of an impression than either of the French youngsters who spend more time on screen as the rather tokenistic European counterfoils to DiCaprio's American ("I don't think in kilometres", he smugly tells them at one point).

The Beach will work best with young teenagers, though, as noted, it may well simply serve to reinforce self-satisfied postmodern amorality and sell some music albums rather than serve as a journey to the contemporary heart of darkness. This is a pity, but the fault is less with the modern audience than with the film itself, which simply lacks the conviction of any of its literary or cinematic predecessors on the level of story to really make an impact.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.