The Beach (2000)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Tilda Swinton, Guillaume Canet, Robert Carlyle.
2000 116 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, sex, brief nudity, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 12, 2000.
If the sole purpose of movies was to offer up gorgeous scenery and camerawork, intermixed with astoundingly memorable and quirky music (including a score by David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti), then "The Beach," directed by Danny Boyle (1996's "Trainspotting"), would be an instant modern-day classic. It is a shame, then, that viewers usually look for something extra when they watch a film. Generally, they search for substance, well-written characters, or, at the very least, a fresh story that doesn't hold its audience in contempt. Guess what movie would like you to believe it has these things, but fails miserably at success on all three accounts?
Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first starring role since the unintentional 1998 laugh-riot, "The Man in the Iron Mask") stars as Richard, a young man traveling through Thailand who, through narration, tells us that his name is the only thing we need to know about him. He is in a new country, after all, and he's starting over--in other words, he should be looked upon as a tabula rasa. Checking into a relatively scuzzy hotel room positioned between a French couple, the alluringly beautiful Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and her boyfriend Etienne (Guillaume Canet), and a crazed Scot named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), Richard learns from Daffy that there is an island of sheer perfection and beauty hidden deep within the Gulf of Thailand. Very few people know about it, and even fewer have been able to find and reach it. The next day, Richard discovers Daffy has committed suicide in his room, but not before leaving him a map to the island.
Richard wastes no time in inviting Francoise and Etienne on his journey to the island, and they quickly accept. Before long, they have set off to find it with the map in hand, and by the 30-minute-mark, have reached the rapturous paradise, where a small community lives and works together in peace and harmony, free of the noise and problems of the outside world. Richard, Francoise, and Etienne instantly move in with the inhabitants, but it is obvious Richard has been pining for Francoise throughout the whole trip. Meanwhile, the leader of the island, Sal (Tilda Swinton), has her eye on Richard, despite having a boyfriend of her own.
If "The Beach" wants to partially be a romance, it is one of the most uncharismatic love stories possibly ever made. While Richard is an intriguing character, we know little about him aside from his aforementioned name, the fact that he enjoys smoking pot, and his occasional scaredy-cat mentality. Leonardo DiCaprio, despite being a wildly popular mega-star due to 1997's "Titanic," really is a fine actor, and he does everything he possibly can to bring his character alive and equipped with more dimension than is written on the page. Richard can be a highly annoying presence whose mouth you would love to tape shut every now and again, but that is an appropriate trait to the figure he plays, a basically care-free free spirit enjoying his youth while it lasts.
Francoise, in comparison, is a completely disposable character without any sort of charm or personality, and we learn literally nothing about her, outside of her physical appearance. It is difficult to say if young French actress Virginie Ledoyen, making her American film debut here, has any thespian talents, but my suspicions point to a resounding "no." Even if the role is severely underwritten, any good actress would be able to turn Francoise into someone who, at least, is likable or kind-natured. Ledoyen plays her like a mannequin--lifeless and without the ability to show emotions.
Richard and Francoise have zero chemistry together, and it is tough to say what Richard sees in someone who might as well be placed in a living room around the holidays and have ornaments and lights hung around her body. Their relationship is haphazardly written, by John Hodge, and executed, by Boyle, and there is no way any audience member could care enough about them to invest their emotions into the fate of their romance.
In the other two notable roles are Guillaume Canet, as Etienne, and Tilda Swinton (1993's "Orlando"), as Sal. Canet is unextraordinary, and his character is surprisingly written to be wimpy in the second half, when he does not even care either way that Richard stole Francoise from him. After a very brief exchange of words, this possible love triangle evaporates and another pseudo one comes to the forefront. On a trip to the mainland to get supplies, Richard and Sal engage in sexual activity, and Sal tells him afterwards that she already has a boyfriend and is uninterested in beginning a relationship; she just wanted the sex. Swinton, an excellent actress who isn't used nearly enough, is able to develop a character, to a degree, and portrays Sal as a strong-willed, determined woman who only wishes for their sacred beach to remain undiscovered.
Approximately fifteen minutes into the film's second hour, "The Beach" makes a U-turn and becomes a thriller, as four travelers whom Richard mistakenly gave a map to, are seen across the water preparing to cross to the island. When Sal finds this out, she demands that he stay in the woods until they reach the other side, and then turn them away somehow. Forced into solitude and without food or Francoise, Richard gradually begins to lose his mind, turning into a prowler of the island's forests. But why? The details into Richard's startling transformation are kept under wraps, only, I suppose, for the filmmakers to know the answer to.
It is unfortunate that the screenplay lets the cast and plot developments down, because "The Beach" is a towering technical achievement. The cinematography, by Darius Khondji (who blessed us with the haunting and unforgettable look of 1999's "In Dreams"), does not disappoint in capturing a beach that is supposedly one of the most pure and beautiful patches of land on the Earth. The choice of music (by such bands as New Order, Sugar Ray, All Saints, and Moby) is perfectly realized and compliments the pretty pictures with a dream-like quality, while the score, by Badalamenti, is resplendent.
"The Beach" is based on a novel by Alex Garland, and like most film adaptations, has allegedly taken great liberties in telling the story. How the picture might have been if more closely related to the book remains to be known (since I have never read it), but something tells me much of it has been chopped up due to the studio (20th-Century Fox) seeking a more mainstream product for DiCaprio's teenybopper fans to enjoy. They might as well have not even attempted it, as the film will leave DiCaprio's younger followers in the dark, or away from the theater, based on its rightful R-rating.
Director Boyle would love to think he has made a motion picture with powerful pro-ecological undercurrents about the deflowering of a nation and the possible purity a hidden world might have the ability to hold, but this statement is about as subtle as a neon sign, and about as thought-provoking as a piece of grilled chicken. "The Beach" is not at all a bad film--simply a misguided one that is ruined by an amateurish screenplay that is missing three important elements: a heart, a brain, and the nerve to be courageous in its storytelling. Wow, I suddenly feel like I just entered into an alternate world of "The Wizard of Oz"--one in which the Emerald City is devoid of any sense of magic, wonder, or human compassion.
©2000 by Dustin Putman