A Norse saga for the modern day, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep stages a play on survival and mythmaking against the backdrop of Iceland’s dramatic landscape.
Breaking The Waves by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From James Cameron’s Titanic to Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, we’ve long been kept enthralled by the hydrotechnic thrills of shipwrecks and the arduous path to survival. But Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep is fishing for a new angle in its retelling of the real life events that befell Gudlaugur Fridthórsson in 1984 off the Westmann Islands. Subject to the ebb and flow of Iceland’s highs (a booming economy based on fishing quotas) and lows (neglected fishing boats, volcanic eruptions and a rolling economy), the country is casting its net for a new hero to rewrite its modern-day history. And in Gudlaugur Fridthórsson they’ve found it – a fisherman from Heimaey who defies both science and the ice-cold waters surviving when his fishing trawler capsizes.
It’s March and fisherman Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is getting drunk, for the next day he’s going out to sea. He’s joined by five others on their vessel, the Breki, but when their fishing nets snag a rock and the winch jams, the boat capsizes. When the others succumb to the arctic waters and hypothermia, Gulli is left alone, swimming to shore and talking to the seagulls overhead. Eventually, he reaches land and frozen and exhausted, Gulli cuts his feet to pieces crossing the crusted lava field of a not-too-distant volcanic eruption. But making it back to his village, surviving, it turns out, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Adapted from the stage play by Jon Atli Jonasson, The Deep provides an interesting polemic on theatre and cinema. The ink black of sky and sea replacing the unlit darkness of the stage. Gulli might be under the spotlight, but Kormákur’s film foregoes its precise and intimate virtuoso performance in favour of the texture of survival, its hero near drowned by waves and crashed against rocks, swimming through vomit-strewn seawater. Gulli’s soliloquies, aimed at friendly gulls overhead, recall Shakespeare or Beckett – a near-death reverie of memory, guilt and hope. And while cinematic survival can often skirt around the slow-burning truth of survival – long hours of waiting, cowering from the elements and on the look-out for a distant ship on the horizon – The Deep follows the initial drama of capsize and desperately clinging on for dear life with reflection during the six-hour swim to shore.
Gulli’s mid-swim memories of Iceland’s volcanic eruptions over a decade earlier, his childhood friendship with Palli and his hopeful visions of going to the bank to pay the final instalment on his bike or comforting Palli’s family, fill the gap preparing us for the meditative second half of The Deep where Gulli is examined by scientists and the reasons for his survival investigated. It’s not just his grim determination to stay alive, ripping his feet to shreds across lava fields and smashing the frozen ice in the Icelandic ponies’ water trough with his fists for water to drink. Beyond the drama of shipwreck and the guilt of letting go of Palli’s corpse, there’s the day-to-day business of surviving – interviewed from his hospital bed, simultaneously disbelieved and proclaimed a miracle. Scientists suggest Gulli might be constituted of a kind of seal blubber, twice as thick as human fat. But following freezing bath tests in London against the military, the unique enigma of Gulli’s survival transforms him from mere mortal into demigod – the hero of an Icelandic saga for the modern age.
A return to Iceland for the director of 101 Reykjavik and Jar City, The Deep is also a cinematic search for national identity, replacing Iceland’s hubristic assertion of economic and cultural independence with an understated hero – the ‘Seal Man’. It’s not just a return to its folkloric past, recalling both the selkies (legendary Norse mermen and women) and Vikings with their ability to withstand death through sheer courage and determination, it’s also a reminder of Iceland’s recent history, with cine-footage of Icelanders excavating their land from cooling pumice drifts. A story of survival and its aftermath, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep loses its footing in the second half, its intentions not quite as sharp as its lacerating lava fields. But focusing on the dangers of life on the island of fire and ice, it’s a tale of epic proportions.
The Deep is released on 12th July 2013 in the UK