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film review

The Deep Baltasar Kormákur His 2012 film The Deep was selected as the Icelandic entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, making the January shortlist.

Icelandic writer, director and actor Baltasar Kormakur currently has two very different movies in theatres. One is 2 Guns, a formulaic Hollywood cops-on-the-run movie starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, at your local multiplex. The other is an art-house offering, The Deep, a hit last year in Iceland, where it was submitted as the country's Oscar nomination. Anti-heroic and introspective, it's about as European as 2 Guns is American.

The drama tells the true 1984 story of a young fisherman, Gudlaugur (Gulli) Fridthorsson, who survived for six hours in the freezing North Atlantic after his trawler capsized. A brief set-up introduces us to Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson), an overweight, cherub-faced man in his early 20s who lives with his parents on one of the remote Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland. When we first meet him, at his favourite watering hole, he's drinking and brawling with his buddies.

The next morning, a hungover fishing crew gets aboard a commercial trawler for a day's work. That night, an accident causes the boat to capsize and in the terrifying rush of water and confusion (no CGI was used – the filmmakers actually sank a boat), the crew is thrown into the freezing North Atlantic. The crew members either die immediately or hang on briefly before succumbing to the cold. In a matter of minutes, Gulli finds himself alone, floating in the freezing waters.

This part of the film – its second act, in effect – is based on a theatrical monologue, written by Kormakur's co-writer, Jon Atli Jonasson, that take us into Gulli's consciousness. No man is an island, even if he is a fairly large man, surrounded by water and with only a seagull for a companion.

Using flickering 16-mm, home-movie footage, Kormakur shows us scenes of Gulli's imagination. He recalls another disaster from his childhood in 1974, when his village had to be abandon when a volcano erupted. He thinks about the reasons why he would like to stay alive – a last payment to make on his motorcycle, a desire to comfort a crewmate's wife and to take care of his friend's old dog.

The mixture of foreboding and homespun eloquence makes this sequence moving, but it's over in about an hour and The Deep has still a stretch to go. Gulli swims to shore. He climbs over lava glass, slashing his feet, and breaks the ice in an animal trough to drink. He climbs a long way and bangs on the door of a farmer's house shortly after 6 in the morning. The farmer's son initially thinks that he's drunk. When the ambulance arrives, he passes out, with a body temperature that's too cold for the thermometer to measure.

The last third of The Deep, following Gulli's recovery and return to ordinary life, is deliberately anticlimactic, with a mordant humour suggestive of the films of Werner Herzog. Gulli is taken to England, where scientists study him like an exotic specimen, subjecting him, along with volunteer athletes, to Nazi-like experiments involving exposing him to freezing temperatures in a water tank. A scientist declares that Gulli was insulated by his unusual fat layer, comparable to the density of "seal fat" (evoking the Northern European myth of the half-seal half-human known as a "selkie.")

In contrast, Kormakur's film suggests that the enigma of Gulli can somehow be found in his peasant humility, his connections to his community. Upon returning to in Iceland, he is briefly treated, to his discomfort, like a national hero and symbol of Icelandic endurance. Kormakur has said in interviews that the story of the improbable survival of one fisherman is a metaphor for Iceland's 2008 economic collapse and the people's perseverance.

The Deep's parting kick is an old hospital-bed television interview with the real fisherman. A shy heavy-set man with straggly mustache and a furtive gaze that avoids the camera, he seems stunned as much by the media attention as the trauma of the accident. He talks, slowly, about the seagull, his lack of a fear of death and the relative insignificance of the tragedy. ("No one is really bothered by this thing happening.")

Questions of heroism or victimhood don't arise. He's a fisherman with an old dog to take care of, a friend's widow and children to console, and a job to return to.

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