With a truly astonishing true story, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep seeks to uncover the experiences of an unlikely survivor of a tragic fishing accident. In March 1984, a boat capsized a few miles south of mainland Iceland, killing most of the crew in the process. The film’s story of the last crewman’s struggle for life in the North Atlantic Sea has all the elements needed to make for a truly astounding experience. Sadly, The Deep fails to live up to this promise.
In what has become a nationally acclaimed story in Iceland, fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson survived a tragic ordeal and against all odds swam an unbelievable distance to shore. The Deep stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in this role (whose name has been changed to Gulli, no doubt to help pronunciation), and it is clear from his appearance that this is an improbable man to survive. Chain-smoking and overweight, Gulli is hardly a pinnacle of physical fitness, and stands out from his shipmates as such.
However, when the ship’s nets are caught and it goes down, it is Gulli who remains, with all is shipmates drowned. What follows is an ultimately unfulfilling journey back to land, as Gulli’s life flashes before him, conversation with birds overhead spur him on, and the promise of rescue floating off into the distance.
This story can hardly be accused of lacking in drama, yet somehow it gets lost along the way. Gulli’s journey is told in such a matter of fact way that there is little to invest in. The almost episodic structure of The Deep means that the section of the film devoted to Gulli’s adversity in the ocean is given far too little time to exhibit any of its daunting nature, moving on too quickly to the aftermath of the accident. The washed out visual pallet effectively conveys the harshness of the Icelandic surroundings, moving from the dark blues of the ocean to the greys of the lava fields Gulli eventually finds himself. There is a real sense of nature converging to swallow him whole, and yet due to this ultimately brief period, not enough time is given to make this as harrowing an experience as it should have been.
Instead, the focus shifts to the aftermath of Gulli’s ordeal, as scientists from around the world seek to understand how he could have survived for so long in freezing temperatures. This choice is a poor one, as whilst there is some curiosity on this subject, it is hardly the most engaging element of this story of survival, of man versus nature.
Despite this, director Baltasar Kormákur succeeds in bringing to the fore the vastness of Iceland’s setting. Immense landscapes and overwhelming ocean shots go some way to emphasise the improbability of Gulli’s survival, and the choice to switch ratio and grain during flashbacks was a good one, bringing warmth and nostalgia to an inhospitable environment. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays the lead well, thanks to his detached, almost vacant style, which portrays the sense of a young man who has already reached his breaking point in life.
Unfortunately, all the positives cannot make up for the fact that the drama and scale of the story is simply lacking. The Deep seems more like a casual docudrama than the draining and uplifting drama that it deserved to be. The lives, and dangerous work, of the Icelandic fisherman are given special recognition, and yet their wholly worthy story is let down. Certainly not a disaster, as Kormákur’s direction shows why Hollywood have sought him out for future works, and lead Ólafsson makes for an engaging presence, and yet there is just too much missing for The Deep to be as memorable as its subject deserves to be.