This Icelandic film about a man who inexplicably survives a shipwreck in the unforgiving North Atlantic, one that wipes out all his crewmates, has an understated beauty.
Based on a true story and adapted from a play by Jón Atli Jónasson, actor-turned-director Baltasar Kormákur begins by introducing us to the small tight-knit community of the Westmann Islands circa 1984. Cue wild winds, blonde-haired men in Araan jumpers and much vodka-drinking to keep spirits and body temperatures high.
Then it’s all aboard as a group of local fishermen set sail in the middle of the night. But hit by a squall, their nets caught on underwater rocks, the fishing boat goes under, along with its crew in a scene that cinematographically perfectly recalls A Perfect Storm.
When his last friend has lost his grip on the wooden plank they grip to and sunk, ghostlike under the waves, the battle of the overweight, curly-haired Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) begins. Gulli, somehow, manages to swim for five hours in the freezing water, at temperatures which claim other men in 30 minutes.
Vomiting into the water, trying to tell jokes to seagulls but too dazed to remember them, his psychological and physical torment is beautifully evoked. Tenaciously refusing to die, he screams, shouts, laughs and cries while trying to keep his head above water. He finally reaches land, dragging himself over rocks and across a dried lava field to a house whose owner immediately gets help.
The final section of the film follows the medical and media hype surrounding the man’s superhuman survival skills, and it is an incredible tale. Gulli was labelled “seal man” as his layer of fat was said to have saved him and, sent to Britain for tests, is pitted against the hardest marines in a giant bath of ice; this somewhat unfit fisherman lasts longer than any of them.
But the momentum slows too much here and, though low-key is the name of the game, things seems anti-climactic somehow.
The truly magical element of The Deep is watching this friendly hulk of a man tread water in the middle of a dark, stormy ocean, the enormity of his situation magnified by shots of him as a small speck in a mass of treacherous water. It’s not hard to see why Gulli’s story gripped the country.