These days, busy Icelandic multihyphenate Baltasar Kormakur alternates between star-studded English-language pics and smaller passion projects set on his home turf. Real-life survival tale “The Deep” is one of the latter, a touching, low-key depiction of an incident in which a fishing boat sinks a few miles from shore, and one crewman miraculously survives six hours in the freezing ocean while swimming to safety. Played as a slice-of-life drama that reveals reams about national character and identity, “Deep” has already sold to Scandinavia, Britain and France, and should hook further niche arthouse buyers. Icelandic rollout began Sept. 21.
Shy, paunchy twentysomething fisherman Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is part of a close-knit crew of six working on a rusty fishing trawler, the Breki. He lives with his parents in a small community on the ruggedly beautiful Westmann Islands, where fisheries constitute the main source of income, and everyone knows everyone else. The islanders are a tough, happy-to-drink-and-brawl bunch, not bothered by their harsh climate or an occasional evacuation when the local volcano spews lava.
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When the Breki puts out to sea in March 1984, it should be an ordinary run, but an accident with the trawl causes the boat to capsize in rough waters, and the men are swept overboard into the cold, dark Atlantic. To Gulli’s horror, the others, including his best friend, Palli (Johann G. Johansson), quickly succumb to the elements.
In Hollywood, this turn of events might have triggered swelling music and waves of sentiment, but Kormakur keeps faith with his protagonist and the phlegmatic Icelandic temperament. Calmed and comforted by the seagull wheeling above him, Gulli swims and talks, telling the bird about the unfinished business he wishes he could live to complete.
Based on a theatrical monologue spoken by the Gulli character, written by Kormakur’s co-scripter Jon Atli Jonasson, the screenplay, like the original, undercuts its sense of foreboding with grounded humor. The film’s visuals convey a strong sense of the everyday life of the people in a fishing village, their quiet but deep relationships, their sense of determination and acceptance of wild nature.
Kormakur, cast and crew actually shot onboard a real trawler, which they also sank. Seeing the water swamp the vessel is incredibly powerful, as are the shots of Olafsson’s body bobbing in the vastness of the ocean. Lensing by top Icelandic cinematographer Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson appears almost monochromatic, so dark are the night and the water; 16mm inserts of events from Gulli’s boyhood further open the narrative and convey the sense of his life passing before his eyes.
In keeping with the overall tone, thesping is subdued. Archival news footage of the real Gulli, interviewed from his hospital bed, plays under the end credits.