Reviewed by: David Graham

Thomas Vinterberg serves up the sort of heavy-handed Eurogloom that seems tailor-made for discerning festival audiences - it's hard to see anyone else caring. The Festen director's latest slice of existential angst is adapted from a novel that no doubt has some measure of power in its native Sweden, but on an international scale its universal themes ring hollow. Kitchen sink drama is about the last thing we need more of in the UK, and Submarino doesn't do enough to distinguish itself.

The story follows two somewhat estranged brothers whose share of childhood trauma has tainted their adult lives. Jakob Cedergren dominates as Nick, the eldest and most obviously self-destructive of the pair; a surly ex-con with an antisocial alcohol problem, he ekes out a lonely existence in a halfway house, venting his frustrations through bodybuilding and occasional casual sex. A chance encounter with a figure from his past makes him re-evaluate his place in the world, but could also endanger everything he is learning to appreciate. Meanwhile, his brother struggles as a single father, doing what he can to provide for his son but oblivious to the extent of his own reckless behaviour. The death of the brothers' abusive mother raises the possibility of their being reunited, if only they can bring their individual problems under control.

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Performances are strong throughout, generating an effective mixture of simultaneous sympathy and anger in the audience. The characters in Nick's orbit are especially intriguing, being arguably more damaged than himself yet still holding on to shreds of positivity, his dour disposition an irresistible challenge to their desperate optimism. His brother (unnamed, as we mostly see him through his role as 'Dad') is less appealing due to the particularly provocative nature of his problems, but he is still a fascinating character. In one very telling scene he tries to reassure his son's teachers that he "cares only about the boy", unconsciously revealing more about his issues than he intends. The young actor playing his son Martin is highly effective, but this relationship is a more limited plot-strand than Nick's, lacking the same sense of internal emotional struggle and ill-advisedly throwing in a half-hearted love interest as if only to further compound the inevitable misery.

The wintry urban settings evoke a convincingly numb atmosphere, but the director's use of music and long takes serve to undermine his attempts to be as impartial to his subjects as possible. The film's structure is perhaps its most interesting element, the narrative being a game of two halves dealing with each brother's quest for some kind of redemption individually. This has something of a distancing effect, understandable in terms of communicating their isolation from each other, but sadly diminishing the cumulative power the story might have had if told in a more linear fashion.

It is commendable that Vinterberg avoids clichéd overlapping scenes, allowing our expectations for a glimmer of hope to build only to be shattered by the harsh reality of each character's fate. However, to endure this twice in a row in just over 100 minutes is perhaps too much of a masochistic test of the audience's faith in the filmmaker. It's difficult not to draw unflattering comparisons to superficially similar but undeniably more powerful films such as Requiem For A Dream and Mysterious Skin; the style and flair of Aronofsky and Araki's films might have let them transcend the cynical emotional string-pulling on display here, itself a world away from the Dogme trappings of Vinterberg's early success.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2011
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Two men struggle to escape a childhood of neglect.
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Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: Jonas T. Bengtsson, Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg

Starring: Jakob Cedergren, Peter Plaugborg, Gustav Fischer Kjærulff, Patricia Schumann, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Morten Rose, Kate Kjølbye, Lisbeth H. Pedersen, Dar Salim, Henrik Strube, Elias Ehlers, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Mads Broe Andersen, Finn Bergh

Year: 2009

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: Denmark

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