German filmmaker Wim Wenders became the object of considerable respect amongst international cinema audiences when he wowed the Cannes Film Festival with his sweetly desolate Americana road movie Paris, Texas in 1984, picking up the Palme d’or and earning almost universal acclaim. Whilst Paris, Texas remains his crowning achievement, Wenders has delivered several other highly accomplished films, including the excellent Wings of Desire, the under-appreciated but highly impressive Michelle Williams-starring Land of Plenty and no less than three Academy Award-nominated documentaries. Based on a book by by J.M. Ledgard that has, apparently, been subjected to rapturous reviews, Submergence desperately wants us to believe it is about ‘big things’, but ultimately emerges as nothing more than an escapist melodrama of the most uninspired kind.
Danielle Flinders (Vikander) is a bio-mathematician fascinated by the darkest, depths of the ocean. Wenders is emphatic in his efforts to ensure we understand that Danielle is a highly intelligent individual, seemingly concerned that we might struggle to accept that a young woman can, in fact, be blessed both beauty and brains. With her glasses hanging around her neck in true geeky-scientist style, she is always sure to put them on to signpost when she is going to say something smart. When she meets intelligence operative James More (James McAvoy) in the days leading up to her departure for her latest expedition, sex and romantic walks on the beach ensue and, despite having only known each other for a few days, we are expected to accept that they are now madly in love. In the truest tradition of literary and cinematic romance, obstacles abound which, in this instance, are quite significant. Danielle hits the high seas enroute to the site of her next expedition near Greenland, while James finds himself captive in Somalia, the local warlords far from convinced of his claims to be a water treatment expert.
There is a mutual theme of confinement within the two parallel narratives; for Danielle it is the cabin of the ship and, later, the submersible that will take her to the ocean floor, while James finds himself subjected to to torture and solitary confinement in a dank, dirty cell. The film flitters back and forth between the two stories as both protagonists find themselves in peril. At one point, James is moved from one location to another for seemingly no other reason than enabling Wenders to execute a match cut between a circular hole in the ceiling of his underground cell and the port hole through which Danielle is staring wistfully. The pace of the action is typically Wenders and the slow tempo isn’t a problem in itself, it’s just that neither character is sufficiently engaging to demand your interest, primarily because we never really find out enough about what they are doing; a combination of a limp screenplay from Erin Dignam and too much time spent developing the romance to allow any real insight into their respective experiences.
Wenders and his two stars are capable of so much better and Vikander, in particular, seems to be struggling to find roles worthy of the remarkable ability she demonstrated in the likes of Ex-Machina and The Danish Girl, the latter of which earned her an Academy Award. It is hard to imagine what attracted Wenders to this project and not being familiar with the book makes it difficult to know whether the problems lie with the source text of this particular version of it. Regardless of how it came to be, Submergence is a major misfire from a filmmaker who remains a figure of reverence in the minds of many. However, it is hard to imagine that even his most ardent disciple will be particularly enamoured by this latest offering.