Thursday 30 April 2020

Movie Review: The Beach (2000)

A story of adventurism seeking docile fulfillment, The Beach succeeds with themes and visuals but fails in creating worthwhile characters.

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young American seeking adventure in Thailand. At his hotel he notices the attractive Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), but she is with boyfriend Étienne (Guillaume Canet). Richard next encounters the unhinged Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who speaks of a secret beach paradise located on an isolated island, and leaves Richard a map to follow. Richard convinces Françoise and Étienne to join him on a quest to find the beach but also reveals the secret map to another group of tourists.

After a long trek and swim, the trio traverse a marijuana plantation protected by armed guards. They then find the idyllic and stunningly beautiful lagoon with a small community of like-minded people from around the world living nearby, led by Sal (Tilda Swinton). Richard luxuriates in a life of idle nothingness and pursues a relationship with Françoise, alienating Étienne, before unexpected events disrupt this version of paradise.

Fully investing in rich visual beauty, The Beach explores the desire to seek what few others have found. What lies at the end of the rainbow and the human propensity to ruin every unspoiled patch of earth is the subject of the John Hodge script, adapting Alex Garland's book. Danny Boyle directs with a here-and-now emphasis, Richard's story dispensing with background and context and just assuming a generational malaise driving a search for exclusivity.

The film works at the personal level as a cautionary tale about the youthful pursuit of an abstract utopia, an escape from social norms where love and beauty are easily acquired for next to no cost. For all his drive to find unique adventure Richard appears content to settle in a place where every day is like every day until the beach starts to reveal its physical and mental dangers, severely disrupting any sense of permanent vacation.

The Beach also functions as a pointed metaphor for foreign intervention and meddling in ancient lands. Sal's community is made up of Americans and Europeans occupying a slice of heaven in Asia, and the foreigners never stop to consider the impact of their actions on the land they are exploiting for selfish fantasies. Needless to say it all threatens to end badly, Richard's personal actions and the group's broader self-indulgence contributing to a fall from this occupied Eden.

But with flat and selfish characters in every corner, ultimately The Beach only dips its toes in any sense of emotional investment. Richard and his fellow adventurers offer nothing beyond the pursuit of an egotistical ideal where leisure is the only objective and success is measured by the achievement of hedonism. As the final act starts to unravel into mythical sidequests, the absence of any sense of empathy and responsibility eats away at the heart of the film, and it's no great loss when the community frays when confronted by hardship.

Leonardo DiCaprio fulfils the objective of cavorting shirtless most of the time, and generally keeps Richard centred on the relentless pursuit of the same uniqueness as everyone else. The rest of the underpowered cast cannot escape the suffocating but beautiful sands of characters checking out of society, only to discover the exceptionally fleeting pleasure of dropping out.

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