There’s an amusing scene near the beginning of Danny Boyle’s The Beach where Richard, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is pouring scorn on his fellow travellers as they sit around watching Apocalypse Now on a giant Bangkok hotel video screen. “We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?”
There is, of course, a great deal of truth in the observation. It makes me think back to a period when I lost my job in my 20s. With no wife, kids or mortgage to worry about at the time I was able to spend the redundancy money on a round the world trip, and as well as visiting many other countries I was lucky enough to be able to idle away a month or two backpacking around Thailand. Barely a day would go by without me happening upon a bar full of tourists in some town or other watching a film on a big screen while taking a break from the afternoon sun. Ironically, nine times out of ten, the movie playing was The Beach.
In Boyle’s film, adapted from the popular novel by Alex Garland, Richard is a young American tourist who wishes to stray from the beaten track and enjoy a travelling experience that is different to the one enjoyed by tens of thousands of other holidaymakers. (In the book Richard is English. Ewan McGregor – who had worked with Boyle on his first three films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary) – was Boyle’s first choice for the lead role despite being Scottish, and apparently was given the part, but it has been speculated that the studio offered Boyle a bigger budget if he employed DiCaprio instead. Tellingly McGregor and Boyle haven’t worked together since.) Richard wants to avoid the popular beach parties, the packed hotels and the seedy bars, and has a chance to do exactly that when he receives a map revealing the location of a secret Thai beach from a disturbed traveller he encounters named Daffy (Robert Carlyle). Setting off with French backpackers Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet), Richard follows the map and eventually discovers an island paradise that is home to a community of international travellers (as well as a small gang of armed Thai drug producers).
This group – consisting of a couple of dozen people that made the journey and settled before Richard and co – has built a small village and appears to have developed a fledgling idealist, hippy society. It is run by the stern Sal (Tilda Swinton) – English in the film but American in the novel – and her South African carpenter boyfriend Bugs (Lars Arentz-Hansen); notable other residents include three Swedes named Sten, Karl and Christo (Magnus Lindgren, Jukka Hiltunen and Staffan Kihlbom) and Keaty (Paterson Joseph), an English cricket fan who becomes friends with Richard.
Initially Richard and his friends settle well into the community, but gradually circumstance and incidents begin to erode their charmed existence, and before long there is trouble in paradise. Richard has a childish desire to live out Vietnam War-style fantasies, his relationships with Françoise and Étienne become strained and a terrible shark attack highlights the fact that the islanders are a selfish bunch that have, as a group, largely lost their moral compass. As well as this, Richard’s decision to make a copy of the map means that more travellers attempt to reach the island, displeasing just about everyone.
While the book was a savage, modern spin on Golding’s Lord Of The Flies or Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, unfortunately, Boyle’s adaptation misfires somewhat. First and foremost, as a criticism of travellers it doesn’t go far enough. Many characters in The Beach – principally Richard – consider themselves to be above the great mass of tourists moving around the rest of the country, and believe they have some kind of divine right to the land simply because they got there before other holidaymakers. Aside from Étienne they are a self-centred bunch, to the point that they will not save a man’s life for fear of revealing their hidden location, but the film is nowhere near as scathing as Garland’s novel. When a group sings Bob Marley’s Redemption Song at a funeral wake gentle fun is being poked at a hippy cliché, but the film needs to go further than this kind of vaguely amusing jibe. A great case in point is the upbeat ending, in which most of the group leave the island by raft and Richard’s souvenir is an emailed group photograph received in an internet cafe. In the book nearly all of the members of the community attack Richard for his actions, attempting to stab him to death, which highlights their selfishness and the complete breakdown in their society; only five eventually leave the island.
One of the primary problems is the casting of DiCaprio. Richard ought to be an interesting hero, one that we are able to both like and dislike in equal measure, but DiCaprio is in full teen heartthrob mode, and this muddles the tone considerably. A less bankable star might have resulted in lower box office takings but a better film with a more ambiguous lead character. DiCaprio’s acting isn’t very impressive either, given the early standards he set for himself and the largely excellent performances from the last ten years (in fact he picked up his first and only Razzie nomination to date for his work on The Beach). Despite this unusually poor showing, he emerges with his teen heartthrob image fully intact, and that perhaps is the best indication of the film’s toothless failure. Richard’s obsession with the Vietnam War is not apparent in the first 2/3rds of the film and does not build up gradually over time, meaning that his actions in the final 1/3rd seem oddly out of character. Disappointingly, the character’s back story is given short shrift; we see him telephoning someone when he returns to a more populated island with Sal to buy rice, which suggests he has a family somewhere, but like the rest of the characters home life is never discussed in the film.
Boyle makes certain stylistic choices that seem unwise too. The attempt to replicate the zeitgeist-surfing soundtrack of Trainspotting backfires, and many of compiler Pete Tong’s choices have dated considerably quicker than expected (though I still hold a soft spot for Pure Shores, the film’s title track by short-lived all-girl pop act All Saints). There is also a truly awful slow-mo scene set underwater as Richard and Françoise share a kiss for the first time, which is like watching an extremely bad and overly-expensive 80s heavy metal video.
Most jarring of all is the inclusion of a bizarre sequence where Richard runs through the island’s small jungle as a pixelated videogame character. DiCaprio gamely goes along with it, to his credit, but it looks terrible and you’re left wondering what exactly it is supposed to signify given that it is completely out of step with the look of the rest of the film. That minute may have been better used developing the story arcs of one or two other characters, as they certainly need it.
Of these only Sal really stands out, though Canet is OK as the likeable Étienne, and Ledoyen is passable as Richard’s love interest. Swinton, though, is menacing as the icy, dictatorial, bossy leader of the island, as she seems to hold a certain power over the rest of the group through remaining aloof. Her performance simply highlights just how lightweight DiCaprio’s is; while she at least gets to grips with the core notion of morality being abandoned through personal greed and desire to maintain the status quo, Leo is somewhere else entirely, wandering shirtless among the palm trees. Carlyle tries to inject some madcap energy into proceedings, but his Daffy is a little over-the-top, and although he is heavily involved in the film’s darkest moments, the actor’s presence on screen becomes gradually more irritating as the film progresses.
It was a troubled production, during which the decision was taken to alter the landscape of Maya Bay on principal location Ko Phi Phi Ley, a small uninhabited island in the Andaman Sea next to the larger Ko Phi Phi Don. The production team and the studio, much to the chagrin of Thai authorities and locals alike, bulldozed and landscaped the natural beach setting to make it even more ‘paradise-like’; some sand dunes were altered and areas of grass and coconut trees were cleared to widen the beach. Fox set aside a fund with the intention of returning the island to its previous state after filming was completed, but environmentalists filed lawsuits saying that damage to the ecosystem was permanent and the restoration project had not been sufficient. Eventually the island’s beach did return to a similar state as before, following the devastating 2004 tsunami.
There is some irony in the fact that the making of a film which itself examines the way in which tourism affects a country saw a film crew directly alter the main location used. Given as close an approximation as possible of ‘paradise’ to play with, the film crew’s actions simply mirrored those of the story’s characters in gradually changing their location for the worse. You have to wonder whether there were any sheepish looks exchanged on set when Carlyle’s Daffy was filmed screaming “cancers, parasites, eatin’ up the whole fuckin’ world!”
Still, The Beach is by no means a total write off, even if it disappointingly dispenses with some of Garland’s original ideas. Aside from those already mentioned above, a major character called Jed was somehow lost in the transition to the big screen, as was a whole segment where the islanders are poisoned, which signifies the beginning of the end. Also, in the book, there is a more believable flirtation between the otherwise loyal Françoise and the frustrated Richard. Boyle has since admitted his disappointment with the way the film turned out, but at least his movies always look good, and here his exaggerated, seedy take on Bangkok’s famous (but actually fairly boring) Khao San Road is enjoyable to see. Even better are the sumptuous shots of Thailand’s islands that are packed in; as the camera flies over the top or – in one case – pulls rapidly and vertically back to reveal the natural beauty of the islands, Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji conjure some truly memorable images. Every time I see the well-staged sequence in which Richard and co first see the beach, for example, my hairs stand on end. So the beaches, rocky outcrops, waterfalls and jungles all look amazing, and so do most of the actors after several months soaking up the Thai sunshine, but this simply betrays the real issue with The Beach: the premise is interesting and it is at times aesthetically pleasing, but there’s little substance beyond that in this film, and unfortunately it fails to capitalize on the characters and themes of the excellent source material.
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: John Hodge, Alex Garland
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet, Tilda Swinton, Robert Carlyle
Running Time: 120 Minutes