Wim Wenders’ career spans over 40 years, covering an eclectic range of topics and genre. Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club; his filmography is incredibly versatile. Heck, he’s even worked with experimental rock band, Eels. His latest film, Submergence, based on the novel of the same name by J. M. Ledgard, is a romance that looks at the past and present of a relationship, showing where they are and how they got there. If this is something you feel you’ve seen before, then allow Wenders to introduce two ingredients sure to separate Submergence from its peers: biomathematics and jihadist soldiers. Did that get your attention?
Alicia Vikander plays Danielle, a scientist about to embark on a huge project that will see her and her team diving to the very bottom of the ocean. When we meet her, Danielle’s head is pretty much in the clouds. She may well be about to embark on one of the biggest achievements of her career, but her boyfriend, James (James McAvoy) hasn’t texted or called her in about a month. And there’s a very good reason for James’ silence: he works for the SAS and is currently being held prisoner by a terrorist group who want to use him for their own political ends. Whilst Danielle pouts about her ‘mean’ boyfriend, Winders cuts to James captured, tired and vomiting in a darkened room, wondering when it’s all going to end. It’s a grim punchline.
In fact, writing that out makes you realise how close to parody this could have been. Not in a spoof way like in David Wain’s They Came Together, but more knowing like A Deadly Adoption, the Lifetime movie that saw Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig playing it incredibly straight. And yet, Submergence is serious. Finger waggingly serious.
As we alternate between the abused James and the pining Danielle, the film drifts back to the first time they met at a hotel whilst on separate holidays. Over the course of several days, the two bankable stars flirt, make love and each try to make the other see the passion they have for politics. For Danielle, it’s all about exploring Earth, trying to see what can’t be seen. James, meanwhile, gently dismisses this as almost naïve, believing that the human population should be aiming their attention at what’s happening around them. Not that their disagreement means anything in the grand schemes of things. It just feels like an opportunity for screenwriter Erin Dignam (The Last Face) to make some political statements, something that continues – with a tin ear – once James is imprisoned and mentally broken down by his captors in the hopes of brainwashing him. All of which gives McAvoy something big and meaty to do, whilst poor Vikander is left to cry into her mobile phone.
There is the possibility of a decent romantic weepy under this narrative flab, one that could easily pass a Sunday afternoon. Strip away the present-day bumf and focus on the film’s flashbacks with the sumptuous score from Fernando Velazquez, and you have the tale of two gorgeous people initially up for a one-night stand and slowly realising they actually love each other, whilst having to wrestle with the notion that their chosen careers mean they can never truly be with each other. It wouldn’t be the next Brief Encounter, but Wenders would have had a fighting chance of offering up something that actually resonates with emotion. Something that makes you feel.
Submergence, as it stands, is in danger of being crushed by its own portentous moralizing, which, at one point, falls back on that old trope of the white man showing Johnny foreigner where they’ve been going wrong all these years. And it’s such a shame as the film has such a talented cast straddled with an unconvincing tone and story, saying so much without actually saying anything at all. Stacked up against his previous work, Submergence settles for perhaps being one for the Wenders completists only.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★☆☆☆
‘Submergence’ begins its limited theatrical run in Australia on August 16.