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The Beach

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 11 February 2000

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio,
Tilda Swinton, Virginie Ledoyen,
Guillaume Canet, and Robert Carlyle

Written by John Hodge
based on the book by Alex Garland

"My name is Richard. What else do you need to know?" This is the question posed by Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the beginning of Danny Boyle's The Beach, and his defensive tone says it all -- this is a young man who is clearly weary of modern society, and the people who comprise it. Although he's a dedicated explorer, Richard frowns on casual tourists ("[They] travel thousands of miles to watch TV and stay somewhere with all the comforts of home," he dryly observes), preferring to see each new place through the eyes of the locals. But though he's been all over the world, he still hasn't found the fulfillment he seeks.

While passing through Bangkok, our hero meets an aptly-named fellow called Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who may hold the answer. Daffy tells the befuddled Richard of an isolated island so beautiful and idyllic that it qualifies as paradise. The centerpiece, reports Richard's new friend, is a remarkable beach, consisting of pure white sand and water so blue that it rivals the sky itself. Richard scoffs at the idea of such a place -- until Daffy offers him a map.

Not wanting to make the journey alone, the intrigued Richard invites two acquaintances to accompany him. Companionship is not his primary concern, however: he is smitten with the lovely Franoise (Virginie Ledoyen), who is the personification of every clich we've ever heard about French girls -- she's exotic, beautiful, cultured, and sensual. Unfortunately, she's accompanied by her boyfriend, Etienne (Guillaume Canet). Still, Richard prefers the thought of having Etienne tag along to leaving Franoise behind entirely. Franoise is wise to Richard's feelings, however ("That's the sort of bullshit American boys say to French girls when they're trying to sleep with them," she observes during one of Richard's many attempts to charm her.) But despite Etienne's presence, Richard and Franoise find themselves growing steadily closer.

Eventually the trio locates the beach, and it is indeed as Daffy described -- a veritable Garden of Eden. To the trio's surprise, a utopic community has sprung up around the locale, with each member of the "resort" (as they call themselves) pitching in with island chores: cooking, fishing, obtaining supplies from the mainland, etc. The leader of the village, Sal (Tilda Swinton), welcomes the new arrivals, but makes them vow never to reveal its location, lest it become overrun with the kind of tourists Richard despises. They agree, and all seems well. But no utopia is quite as perfect as its creators intended, and the resort is no exception -- Richard soon discovers the price of living with a secret that must be maintained at all costs.

The Beach is a splendid piece of visual cinema, boasting some of the loveliest photography to grace the silver screen in ages. Every shot is meticulously composed by director Boyle (Trainspotting) and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, for maximum impact, leading to the most beautiful images you're likely to see this year. The locale, in fact, becomes as much a character as any of the people. (Observe how Richard and Franoise's first kiss is largely the product of their surroundings; Boyle orchestrates this scene into a stunning underwater ballet.) Indeed, the cinematography alone would be enough to justify the film's existence, even if the rest of the story weren't so interesting in its own right. Be sure to stay for the end credits, which contain some of the movie's loveliest visuals.

Admittedly, things degenerate a bit as the film nears the third act, with DiCaprio's character forced to play "Rambo" in a subplot that goes on much too long. Nor is Robert Carlyle -- so excellent in Trainspotting and The Full Monty -- given much to do here. While he conveys the lunacy of the Daffy character, the movie never allows us to get inside his head. Daffy's backstory is the film's single biggest omission -- what happened to turn him into the maniac we observed in Bangkok? We get some tantalizing hints, but no answers.

On the whole, however, the story succeeds. The entire cast is great, with DiCaprio being particularly good in a role that's an interesting variation from his teen heartthrob image. The story, which seems to be at least partially inspired by Lord of the Flies, remains consistently interesting. And thanks to the film's exquisite cinematography, watching The Beach is the next best thing to being there.

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