Feature Narrative Reviews

How Deep Is the Ocean (2023) – 0.5 stars

Director: Andrew Walsh

Writer: Andrew Walsh

Cast: Olivia Fildes, Cris Cochrane, Will Weatheritt, Adam Rowland

Running time: 1hr 16mins

We should get the positives out of the way first; such as they are.

How Deep Is the Ocean is relatively well acted. The cast do a good job with what little they are given. As the film’s protagonist(?) Eleanor, Olivia Fildes in particular is tasked with repeatedly getting from A to B in an almost endless stream of excruciating scenes that had little – if any – scripted dialogue. Her best moments come when acting opposite her alcoholic landlord Roy (Cris Cochrane), and the pair seem to have a chemistry which – had director Andrew Walsh not placed them in such a relentlessly ominous context – could have been the grounds for a much more enjoyable story.

But tasked with pulling an endless stream of dialogue out of your arse over 76 minutes, you’re inevitably going to start sounding like you’re being forced through a game of Mad Libs at Guantanamo Bay. As the film progresses, the desperation to say something, anything, to keep things moving is palpable, and leads to some lamentably bad, cyclical exchanges. Sometimes it is hard to determine who the film was harder on, the cast or the audience. But looking back on the look of exhausted terror which never fully leaves Fildes’ face as she is prodded to provide another off-the-cuff conversation about how she really needs this job, I definitely think it’s the former here.

At the same time, some of the cinematography is genuinely beautiful. Scott David Lister’s framing of the gorgeous ocean views which book-end the plot gives the film emotional textures that are broadly absent in the rest of the film – and given the themes it touches on, for better or worse, the production could have done with a lot more of this kind of filmmaking. The camera catches the deep blues and moody greys of the sea and sky as dusk’s final lights fade away, as Fildes stands waist-deep in the sea – and for one second it feels like we understand how the character is actually supposed to be feeling.

Lister’s cinematography doesn’t always manage to maintain these standards, but sometimes that is also because it seems to have been brutally undermined by the final edit. Exemplifying this at its very lowest point, in one of the closing exchanges in films, we are treated to one of those archetypical moments where two characters moving in different directions – figuratively and literally – glimpse each other from afar in a final, wordless goodbye. With a train-track stretching out endlessly behind her, preparing to whisk her away to a new chapter in her life Eleanor gently smiles and nods to her friend Matt (Will Weatheritt, who Tube Rats followers might recognise from Emo the Musical), who she seems to have spotted somewhere off in the distance. After this lingering shot tries to illustrate how the pair have grown apart, the illusion is immediately smashed as editor Ivan Malekin inserts a flat shot of Eleanor and Matt standing two metres apart, awkwardly gawping at each other across the deserted train platform, in silence.

Were this an intentional move, it could work as a fantastic punchline for a visual joke – subverting our expectations for Hollywood schmaltz by setting it up, only to deliver a cold slice of underwhelming reality instead. Considering how flabby and ill-disciplined the wider edit is, though, this being a deliberate move seems a remote prospect.

It might seem like the positives I listed aren’t especially positive at all. But in the context of everything else they become a lot more pronounced.

Starting with Walsh’s involvement in the project, there needs to be an understanding among directors and writers that simply chucking in an improvised scene does not absolve you from responsibility. The dialogue is often excruciating, and I got the impression that actors had been thrown in at the deep end without the chance to workshop first, let alone to deliver multiple takes.

Most scenes are single flat shots of one actor babbling something expository, and their counterpart then struggling to add anything to it. While I am not privy to what actually happened on set, it does not seem like there was enough effort to guide actors between takes, or to put them at ease throughout production – and broadly this translates into a constant feeling of foreboding throughout every scene; including several which it seems are just supposed to be charming.

In one early scene when Eleanor first meets Roy, the whole film seems like it is being set up for a grim story about abuse. Roy is letting out his spare room, and Eleanor is new in town, having just arrived with little more than the clothes on her back. The pair stand in the room as Roy awkwardly banters about the place – decked out in a certain sleeveless undershirt, hipflask in hand – while glossing over a number of details that would probably be of great concern to a young woman when viewing accommodation. This includes the fact the door does not have a lock.

Regardless, the pair shake hands (no contract is ever signed), and Eleanor immediately takes up residence. That night, after taking a shower, she falls asleep in her towel. Moments later, Roy – pissed out of his skull – kicks through the door, and looms over her in his Y-fronts. Mercifully, he leaves after she shouts at him to get out, but the scene will leave a very bad taste in the mouth of many a viewer – especially as it is later followed up with Roy sitting his tenant in front of an old VHS player, to show her a porn film he has been saving for a special occasion.

Both scenes seem to have been played for laughs by subverting our expectations. But the expectations appear to be pretty sensible – that old men who are in positions of power over women tend to abuse them – while the subversion seems to be ho-ho-ho, not ALL men are rapists – some of them are just funny blokes. If we’re being generous, that is a very poorly judged ‘joke’ to make, coming from a place of blissfully ignorant privilege.

When it comes to delivering constructive criticism, point one on the agenda really has to be avoiding doing anything like this ever again – especially within the context of the casually sexist undertones in the rest of the plot. Earlier I intimated that it is hard to tell whether Eleanor is actually the protagonist, because for much of the film she seems to be the antagonist in the personal narrative of every man she meets.

The landlord who we are assured is not a predator, and is just a well-meaning loser, eventually drinks himself to death (his addiction having been distastefully treated as a bit of light fun until it suddenly isn’t anymore), after attending a birthday party that Eleanor encouraged him to go to. She immediately blames herself, and nobody convinces her otherwise – even when a goodbye note from Roy is handed to her by the police. It’s customary for films to bother to tell us what is contained in such a letter, or at least to see how its contents change the perspective of its reader – but we get neither here.

At the same time, a sub-plot has seen Eleanor become infatuated with the beach-bum next door, Charlie (Home and Away actor Adam Rowland). Despite appearing to be her senior by some distance, and being married to someone expecting a baby, Charlie goes along with it just the once – before Eleanor learns the truth and quietly withdraws to cry about what she has supposedly done. At the same time, she has repeatedly rebuffed the advances of the mild-mannered and performatively kind Matt in favour of chasing the affair – who ends up in a happy relationship while she leaves town, her life in tatters once again. The story has terminal nice guy syndrome in this sense, unsubtly suggesting that this woman could have been happy too, if only she had settled down with Matt, who she owed for all the nice things he did.

It is hard to know just how many of these storytelling decisions were conscious on Walsh’s part, but either way, it is advisable that he at least finds a woman to co-write his next production with. The gender norms he might have imbibed are not the only area where a bit of self-awareness would go a long way to improving Walsh’s follow-up, either.

The fourth-wall-breaking absurdity of that editing decision on the train platform might point the way forward. There are many moments in this film where the team could have played with the absurdities of film production in a way that would have been genuinely funny.

In an early scene at Eleanor’s short-lived job at a café, a slovenly Englishman berates her for suggesting he might order a vegan item on the menu. “Do I look like a fuckin’ vegan?” he bellows, seconds before he delivers his deadpan order of a turmeric latte. Nobody breaks character to play with this ridiculous contrast – the supposed grizzled everyman resistant to modern cuisine ordering a drink which is the polar opposite of that – and the director would have done well to call for another take, where someone could either make more of that verbally, or lean toward the camera with a Bugs Bunny-style raise of the eyebrow.

Instead, we bluntly blunder onward, with Eleanor deciding to get one over on the rude customer by spitting in his coffee. Except that there is no wall between her and him, and her manager is standing approximately three feet away. This apparent lacking of object permanence – believing if she can’t see someone, they aren’t there – comes back in a later scene where Eleanor breaks out a hip flask to down a shot of whisky during a job interview. It feels like this could have been a decent running gag in a comedy, if it was amped up a bit – but it takes place in a generally humourless film which doesn’t really know what it is, or who it wants to appeal to.

Perhaps the biggest open goal for some actual humour, which is entirely missed, is that the aforementioned interview is presided over by Lord Business, a cliché-ridden ‘entrepreneur’ who presumably spent the last year losing money on Bored Ape NFTs, sporting the most preposterous American accent since Michael Caine in On Deadly Ground. “Alrighty-roo, my name’s Neil, I’m sitting in the Daddy chair, because I worked for it” he declares, before taking a loud phone call from someone we cannot hear, asking him for some undiscernible deliverables. The man is the biggest loser out of any character in the film, he practically has a “kick me” note pinned to his back, but nobody makes the slightest effort to call his ridiculous LinkedIn bravado into question – in what could have helped elevate this film into a much more enjoyable viewing experience.

The thing which I wish more independent filmmakers would realise is that nobody knows what their film should be, and they don’t have to make a po-faced drama about depression, alcoholism or abuse. If they haven’t done the homework which means they will handle those topics appropriately, if they don’t have a working script about it, or if their production is now floundering having overlooked these minor details in the planning stage, pivoting to a different plan of attack can be a life-saver. With a sprinkling of self-awareness regarding its shortcomings, some tweaks around its attitude to the main character, and the willingness to cut out one of its many unnecessary side plots, How Deep Is the Ocean could have been a half-decent comedy.

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