The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 2, 2000
Wide Angle

The Beach in paradise
By Ervell E. Menezes

THE Beach is a fascinating film because it deals with a perennial subject based on a thought-provoking novel of the same name by Alex Garland. In sum, it is about man’s (women read woman’s) search for an ideal paradise where one is one with nature and in a select company doing the things one wants to. But the problem arises when this paradise gets crowded with undesirables and the question of who calls the shots. Society always poses a problem and that’s what turns an avowed paradise into a hell of a nightmare.

Party time at The BeachWhen a young American named Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) goes to Bangkok it is to discover the Orient. At first he is reluctant to taste snake-blood but he gets over it because he wants to "just keep your mind open and suck in the experience." And the experience includes a visit to an exclusive paradise on the outskirts of Bangkok, a perfect beach unsullied by tourists. But the one who sows the idea Daffy (Robert Carlyle) is found dead the next day, lacerating his wrists but leaving Richard a map of this secret paradise.

  Enter Etienne (guillaume Canet) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen), a French couple staying in the same hotel. Richard asks them to join him in this search for paradise. That this threesome has to encounter resistance from the locals is not unexpected. But they eventually make it to this haven of nature only to find a virtual human colony living there. For years they have shunned civilisation and only periodically visit the nearby town for supplies.

Can this society survive in the light on new entrants? A middle-aged woman named Sal (Tilda Swinton) is currently the head of the colony. Will there not be a tussle for leadership? "Daffy was one of the founders of our community, but he became depressed," Richard is told. But can one live on beauty alone? Francoise doesn’t take long to flip for Richard and when Sal decides to take him on a visit to town, she gets jealous. Permissiveness also poses a problem but when two of the community are mangled by sharks they cannot bear to see them mutilated.

"Nothing is expected to interrupt the perfect pleasure (of the beach), not even dying," seems to be the creed. Peter Boyle of Trainspotting fame does an excellent job in handling this rather complex subject. "I was mesmerised by my friend’s description of the island and its secret community," says Boyle about choosing to do the film. "Searching for paradise is ingrained in many of our psyches," he goes on.

A scene from Bicentennial ManIt is all about happiness and how elusive in becomes in the light of changing emotions and feelings. Maybe director Boyle meanders a bit in the first half and just as one is wondering what the film is about to say one gets to the core of the subject. How fickle is society and how transitory can happiness be? What about the part of the locals? Does one have the right to make one’s home in a foreign land?

These are the questions raised. It is the hippie philosophy revived and basically the ability of westerners to call the shots because of their stronger currency. But is really an ideology or a form of escapism, a passing phase. And because of their penchant for taking drugs they are hardly able to tell. If Girl, Interrupted is about the hippie era being revived The Beach is the same except that this group is only experimenting in living.

John Hodge’s screenplay could have been more specific but after a sort of lackadaisical start it does well to capture the nuances of a plethora of relationships. It also brings out the strong emotions of love, envy and jealousy. And the voice-over is impressive. What is the impact of this "journey into space" for Richard, the American who thinks that his dollars can buy him everything, even love and happiness?

Leonardo Di Caprio, the Titanic hero manages to get under the skin of the part and is ably supported by Virginie Ledoyen as the impulsive Frenchwoman. Robert Carlyle, the hero of The Full Monty is wasted in a fleeting role while Tilda Swinton’s is a good cameo. Darius Khondji’s camera work is sweeping and the lush outdoor locales quite enchanting, but it is the cerebral part of the film that is equally convincing. I couldn’t help but think about Goa in this context.

Bicentennial Man is the other film I saw and thought one appreciates the philosophy of trying to humanise a robot the story stretched over 200 years, is a bit too long to sustain interest. Based on Isaac Asimov’s novel The Positronic Man, it deals with the robot Andrew (Robin Williams) and his efforts to become more human because of the emotions he feels for the family in which he works as a household appliance, especially Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz).

Now the thing about Robin Williams I find it difficult to understand is how he chooses his films. While he can be absolutely brilliant in films like Dead Poet’s Society Mrs Doubtfire Patch Adams and The Birdcage he can drag in absolutely dreary films like Toys and hook. Bicentennial Man could join the second category. But it isn’t Williams’ fault. One has to blame the writer Isaac Asimov.

Working its way through three generation and 200 years is very ambitious. The beginning is cute and children would just love it, especially Andrew’s exploits with the family he loves. Sam Neil is the father, Wendy Crewson the mother and Little Miss the cute girl whom he grows attached to. But then kids won’t be interested in the story that spans generations.

Director Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame is good while dealing with children’s subject. But in the second half Bicentennial Man ceases to be a kids’ story. In a way it is welcome in that it is not about a Frankensteinian monster so common these days. Andrew is a lovable robot and thanks to the efforts of an inventive robotics expert Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt) he is able to acquire human proportions but 140 minutes is too long to sustain this story which tends to get rather mushy towards the end. In sum, it is a film which flatters, only to deceive and hence is eminently avoidable both for children and adults.

No, this is not to deride sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov. Like H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, Jules Verne, Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury, he is prophetic and thought-provoking but not all such novels can be converted into successful films. The "attention span" while reading a book is much longer and one can take breaks while reading. Not so with films.

This feature was published on May 21, 2000