INNOCENCE NEVER LASTS FOREVER.
There exists in most people, not everyone, but most people an urge, a fundamental need to travel beyond their own borders. Specific reasons for this need can vary from person to person, ranging from the relatively low end (“I wanna try the beer of every country in that continent”) to the more high minded (“I want to experience other cultures firsthand”) to the boundary pushing (“I want to be more connected with how I live every day of my life”). However, perhaps the most common thing is a deep-seated quest for freedom, to shake off the constraints of the world in which you’ve grown up and just go, hoping to find adventure, peace, excitement, new experiences, paradise. And what if you were to actually find that paradise? A literal location of beauty and tranquility free from the hassle of the “real world”. And if you found it, what would you do to keep it? To protect it from the others looking for it, too?
Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young American, travels to Thailand to experience a world that is unlike his own back home. Whilst there, he meets the possibly psychotic Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who possesses a map he claims leads to an isolated beach, a tropical paradise. Later, when Richard finds the body of Daffy, a victim of suicide, he takes the map and, inviting along a French couple he has me, sets off to find this new bliss on a secluded island.
Around the mid-90s, specifically 1994, the boys of Figment (director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald) landed on the British film scene with a hell of a first film, Shallow Grave. Pretty much still standing up there amongst the best feature debuts ever, they then managed to outdo themselves two years later when they released Trainspotting, which gave them an instant passport to worldwide recognition. Perhaps inevitably, their next year’s follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary, saw them stumble a bit. Now, I will eventually get to all three of those films along this journey, but the effect of that third title was something of a temporary retreat for the Figment team. Part of what made A Life Less Ordinary such a flop was the erratic sense of tone and loose focus of the film, trying to make a romance, a crime story, an ethereal road movie, an anarchic comedy… it was kind of all over the place, at least as was seen at the time. Certainly ambitious, but there was no real escaping the fact it was a major departure from the laser-like focus of something like Shallow Grave. Their first flop, it sent the boys back under for three years, during which time they released only one short film in 1999 called Alien Love Triangle, starring Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, Courteney Cox and Alice Connor.
However, the following year, they made their return to the feature market, with an adaptation of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach, in which a disconnected young Brit travels to Thailand seeking adventure and ends up discovering a secret paradise beach on a remote island.
Some of the events that led up to the making of the film are actually quite interesting, given that they are somewhat indicative of some of the problems with the film, of which it undoubtedly has a few. One of the first regarded the casting of the lead. Director Boyle wanted to cast his regular star Ewan McGregor as the lead, however this was not to be. Some stories vary as to when it actually happened, but the primary thrust is that the decision was made over Boyle’s head. McGregor hadn’t quite fully capitalised on the rise to stardom in a major way just yet, and it certainly didn’t help that the last time McGregor and Boyle paired up was a flop. As such, the studio wanted someone much more bankable and “hot” for the lead, and they chose Leonardo DiCaprio, who was still riding the wave of popularity from his heartthrob status and the wild success of 1997’s Titanic. Though Boyle wound up holding DiCaprio in high regard, it was the first of the concessions that had to be made to deliver the product 20th Century Fox wanted, rather than a more accurate depiction of the novel.
By the director’s own admission, The Beach would seem to be kind of an odd choice of project for Danny Boyle. Previously, his films were set in urban environments, locating themselves very much within contemporary modern society. In The Beach, the point is about actively distancing oneself from it, getting away from usual trappings of the urban construct and striking out for parts unknown. As the man said himself, “I liked the actors, we had a great time, but I didn’t like the characters. I’m an urban person. I love cities and I made that film about a load of hippies in the countryside, nothing in common with them at all. You’re there making the film and you think, ‘I can’t relate to these people at all. What are they doing here? I am so bored.’” So, given this point, you would have to ask why exactly he picked this project to return with. Well, looking beyond the “hippies in the countryside” comment, these characters do share a common link to his previous ones: a selfish pursuit of pleasure.
Now, this definition does shift slightly as you look to his previous work. In Shallow Grave, three friends compromise their own morals, and friendship, when presented with a chance for substantial financial gain. In Trainspotting, every character is engaged in a pursuit of their own thrills, be it through drugs, sex or violence. Even in A Life Less Ordinary, Robert and Celine engage in an extended crime spree through desperation and greed… yes, okay, and love. The point is that the characters Boyle has a tendency to focus on aren’t necessarily the most sympathetic or likable, though there is still the argument of how he expects to make an audience relate to these characters when he cannot do so himself. Nevertheless, I believe I can see something of an attraction for Boyle to working on this project, aside from the chance to visit a nice locale.
Richard’s whole quest for paradise is born of the same pleasure-seeking temperament as those in Boyle’s previous films. However, in The Beach, it goes beyond just that of a personal quest. The film itself is a more ambitious attempt to pursue and embrace a higher sense of paradise, one that can be reached, embraced and enjoyed by all… provided they are worthy. This idea of a religious conceit to the film is one that is hinted at here and there, though this could perhaps have been built on better were it not for an apparent need to please the studio, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Paradise as a term has its roots in a religious context, referring to a place of peace and contentment, which rests as a contrary ideal to the abject misery of human existence and, more so, to the torment of a Christian Hell. Despite being located within an Eastern territory, it’s Christianity that is the reference point, since those that come to stay on the titular beach are from the Western world (America, France, Britain, etc.). It would make some sense that the notions of what Paradise is and how one gets there spring from a more Westernised concept of spirituality, hence the fact that many of the Westerners we see in Thailand tend to ignore the beauty of that culture and either stay in watching American movies or go out and get drunk. This Western spirituality returns as an undercurrent in the character of Keaty (Paterson Joseph), the beach resident who brings Richard and his two friends, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet), to the beach after they make the literal leap of faith from atop a waterfall. Keaty, an Englishman, is said to have only two loves in the world: Christianity and cricket. And there’s a moderately recurring sentiment in Richard’s voiceover, as he makes occasional reference to Paradise and sin. Within the beach community itself, they have developed their own system of ritual and language. Every member is tattooed with three marks on their arm, performed by the last person to arrive before the new ones. They also play a game that involves learning a new language (in this case, Serbian) simply by picking it up and learning odd phrases. Richard gets much praise for his ability to pick up on this quickly.
As is unsurprising, the longer the residents spend in their tropical paradise, the more reluctant they are to return to the main land. When the group’s supply of rice needs replacing, the group’s leader, Sal (an on form Tilda Swinton), a proverbial iron hand in velvet glove, announces that someone needs to accompany her to the mainland for supplies. No one wants to go. Partially because they don’t really want to leave their beautiful idyll, but mainly because going back is now such an unpleasant experience. When you spend your time in a gorgeous paradise, the act of jumping back into normal civilisation, even temporarily, to be surrounded by the miserable wretches of the real world as they stagger and vomit and bellow… it’s not surprising that they want to stay away.
It’s on this run, having been effectively voted into going, that Richard starts to get a better understanding of the maniacal ranting of the man who led him to the beach, Daffy. When he meets Daffy, the man is unhinged. Shouting, swearing, rambling about the parasites of civilisation. At the time, Richard responded as most would: “No offence and all, but, you’re fucked in the head, right?” Now, after having seen the beach and having experienced paradise, Richard understands exactly what Daffy was talking about. Returning to the hectic, grimy, decadent morass of everyday life isn’t just upsetting, but actually kind of painful, even infuriating. Before this, Richard has always had some understanding of the cost of keeping their new home a secret, such as when he watches a fellow member plea for a dentist, but watches as Sal (looking very similar to the Buddha statue at the film’s opening) flat refuses. But Richard understands. “We have a secret here, right? Sometimes people need to take a little pain to keep it that way.” These are words that will certainly come back to haunt him. Now, having been changed by his new surroundings, he knows that there is a cost, and is becoming increasingly more comfortable with protecting paradise from those that he believes are not worthy of it.
This is itself at the heart of what The Beach tries to discuss: the exclusionary nature of Paradise. Everyone that reaches the beach, which before had only been something regarded as rumour or local legend, does so by believing enough in its existence to put themselves at great physical peril. When their faith is rewarded, one of their first thoughts is that this new place must remain a secret, protected from outsiders at all costs. Effectively, it’s the classic traveller vs. tourist dynamic. A traveller is one who seeks out new places, hoping to soak up everything it has to offer before the tourists come along and ruin it, exploiting it and making it just another place to go. However, by putting conditions and exclusions on entry into paradise, doesn’t that contradict what paradise truly is? Were it left up to whomever was the first to reach Paradise to decide who was allowed in thereafter, the exclusivity instilled would, by its nature, create disharmony. On his trip to the mainland with Sal, he does say that they are special because they know, they can live better than this, but that’s not true Paradise. It’s either open to everyone or no one. Otherwise, Heaven is no better than one of those country clubs that won’t let in minorities. And you certainly can’t protect it with violence and force. As it turns out, Paradise corrupts.
There is plenty to think about underneath everything in The Beach, however it does have more than a few problems, which does tend to devalue the whole as a viewing experience. Numerous changes were made between the book and the film and, as I mentioned earlier, these were clearly concessions made to the studio. For example, there is a romance between Richard and Françoise in the film that does not exist in the book. In the book, Richard does have feelings for Françoise, but this never goes further, with Françoise remaining with Étienne. This would rest thematically closer with the idea of something desired, but remaining out of reach that runs through the story. However, in the film, Richard and Françoise do get together, mainly because the studio can work better with a romance plot, plus it’s nice to see pretty people get down in the sand. This has something of a knock-on effect through the rest of the story, as now Étienne is cast aside, and complications arrive later on in the film as a result. It’s not a complete sell-out, as John Hodge does manage to tie it into what must be done to maintain the secret of Paradise.
One of the more regular criticisms made about the film in regards to differences from the novel is the lack of real development in Richard’s character in regard to his obsession with war movies and video games. These elements do come to play in the film, but they do seem hollower than they would if it had been built better. As it is, sequences where Richard literally transposes himself into a video game fantasy are what fill the gaps, or, on a more subtle level, moments when Richard starts to unravel in the jungle strike a very Apocalypse Now feel since Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji seem to be purposely trying to recreate the lighting and atmosphere of that film’s final scenes, as well as giving Richard a red head band, recalling The Deer Hunter.
The biggest problem with The Beach is that, in all of its tone-hopping, going from romance to adventure to thriller, with war motifs and religious undertones, it all feels a bit clumsy. Danny Boyle did say that if the film had a smaller budget, he would have been more likely to ignore studio directives. However, since he had been handed around $50million (easily the biggest budget he’d been given at that point), he felt more obliged to acquiesce to their demands. There was also an alternate ending not used, which may be more of a downer, but would at least have felt truer to the film's message. And because the filmmakers spent some time telling the story, and some time giving the studios what they wanted, any potential subtext gets lost in the haze.
The Beach is a beautiful looking film, with many beautiful people in it. And there isn’t really a bad show in there, though Robert Carlyle and Tilda Swinton are the clear standouts, especially since they’re served with some of the better-written roles. And it’s not like there is nothing worth talking about, either. It just falls short too often to get a real handle on what it wants to talk about.
Perhaps the real legacy of the film comes from the treatment of the island itself during the production process. In order to make the already gorgeous beach of Ko Phi Phi Lee a bit more “paradise-like”, 20th Century Fox had crews bulldoze the beaches to flatten them and ripped up some of the natural landscaping to widen the beach. They even introduced trees that were not native to the land because they looked better… yeah, I know, right? Fox did set aside money with which they could return the beach to its previous natural state, but environmentalists still sued, claiming the ecosystem had been permanently damaged. Some of the natural state of the beaches was restored by the tsunami in 2004, but that same disaster actually also caused other portions of the beach to literally collapse and break apart. In telling a story about the corruptive influence of Paradise and the terrible things people will do protect it, the filmmakers tried to improve on the look of a genuine island paradise and ruined it… bloody tourists.