The Deep

The Deep (Djúpið) (2013)

The Deep (Djúpið) first published by Grolsch FilmWorks.

“I’m going home,” declares Gulli  (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) near the end of The Deep (Djúpið).

One icy night, a fishing boat sinks three miles off the coast of Iceland’s Westman Islands. All aboard are killed except for Gulli, a gentle giant who swims for six long hours in subzero temperatures until he reaches the rocky shoreline, and then scales a cliff and walks barefoot in the snow for a further two hours across a frozen lava field to the town where he lives – and will now live again.

The title of The Deep may evoke the similarly named Peter Benchley adaptation from 1977 (and one scene features a sailor watching a Betamax of Jaws), but Baltasar Kormákur‘s film, drawn closely from a real-life incident in 1984, eschews all sensationalism and melodrama, instead offering a very low-key saga of survival and social continuity – an allegory, if you like, for Iceland’s recent recovery from economic shipwreck. Think of it as The Grey (2011) without the wolves, or as a boy’s own adventure with all the adventure stripped away to expose the alienation and existentialism beneath, as one man is pitted against the elements and makes it through without rhyme or reason to resume his humble, hard-working life right where he left off. It is a film which, much like its unassuming protagonist, conceals the extraordinary deep within the ordinary.

“I’m just a man, a very lucky man,” Gulli will insist – although he has become variously known as a “national hero”, an “enigma” and also (owing to his anomalous physiology) a “seal”. For while much of the film traces Gulli’s ordeal in the water (shot wide to emphasise his extreme isolation), a lengthy third act shows the aftermath, as Gulli is taken abroad by doctors seeking a “rational explanation” for his miraculous survival, before finally being reintegrated into his own community and returning to work on the boats. Meanwhile flashbacks (presented as projected Super-8 home movies) to Gulli’s childhood reveal the whole community returning and rebuilding their homes in the wake of a (real) 1973 volcanic eruption that had buried their town in ash overnight. This is a broader social analogue to an individual’s survival, ensuring that Gulli’s story is also a national one.

Kormákur’s most distinctive films have been made in, and concerned with, his native Iceland (101 Reykjavik, 2000; The Sea, 2002; Jar City, 2006; White Night Wedding, 2008), but after nibbling the lure of Hollywood with the English language feature A Little Trip To Heaven (2005), he recently seemed to have made a more permanent move to the US with Inhale (2010) and Contraband (2012) – the latter a middling remake of Óskar Jónasson’s much better Reykjavik-Rotterdam (2008) which starred Kormákur. Yet The Deep not only has a very strong sense of its Icelandic locations, but is also, in part, preoccupied with nostalgia and homecomings, making it a welcome return for the director himself.

strap: Baltasar Kormákur’s understated survival saga finds a national allegory of resilience and recovery in its Icelandic true story

Anton Bitel