BEACH, THE






If you combined “Lost Horizon” with “Lord of the Flies” and added
a bit of “The Blue Lagoon” and “Apocalypse Now” to the mix,
you’d have something akin to Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the
celebrated novel by Alex Garland. Not having read the book
myself, I can’t tell whether the picture is faithful to it or
whether it accurately reflects the original tone. What’s
clear is that as a movie “The Beach” is very handsome to look
at, with lots of cinematic style and pizzazz. But it’s equally
apparent that as a narrative the film is extremely silly and
disjointed. A viewer leaves the theatre filled with admiration
for the effort that must have gone into shooting it and for
the luscious texture cinematographer Darius Khondji has
contrived to bring to the screen, but also wondering why so
much effort was expended on such feeble material.

The plot centers on the search for paradise–in this case, an
attempt by a callow, shiftless young American (Leonardo
DiCaprio) bumming about in Bangkok to locate an island,
supposedly the most perfect, unspoiled beach in all the world,
to which he’s been given a map by a nutty Scotsman (Robert
Carlyle). Taking along a French couple he’s just met (Gauillaume
Canet and Virginie Ledoyen), he finds his way to the isle,
half of which is under the control of drug farmers and the
other the site of a hippie-like commune led by the autocratic
Sal (Tilda Swinton). The trio join the community, a bunch of
back-no-nature oddballs, and find contentment until various
forces intervene to destroy the locale’s pristine perfection.
One is that old demon of sexual attraction, which breaks up
old affections and creates new couplings; another is the
threat constantly posed by the drug-farmers, aiming to
protect their financial interests with rifles if necessary;
a third is the violence nature can suddenly bring, with its
intimations of mortality; and a fourth involves the arrival
of outsiders who threaten the stability of the community
and for whose coming the DiCaprio character is blamed. As a
result he’s ordered to see to it that the newcomers are
gotten rid of–an assignment which leads the protagonist to
live in isolation and eventually to “go native” in a fashion
familiar from Golding’s book and Coppola’s Vietnam epic.

From all this it’s apparent that “The Beach” wants to confront
Big Ideas like the conflict between nature and civilization,
the quest for perfection, the destructive impact of human
intervention and the thin line between culture and barbarism,
but it deals with these issues in such a goofy, scatterbrained
fashion that it becomes cartoonish rather than profound. The
island commune, for instance, seems like something out of a
sixties timewarp, and Swinton’s character, in particular, comes
across as unduly shrill. Similarly, the native wisdom of the
farmers, despite their criminal conduct, is a complete cliche.
The whole plot, in fact, strikes the viewer as simulanteously
juvenile and pretentious.

As for DiCaprio, he’s certainly boyish and enthusiastic in his
first starring role since “Titanic” (there was “The Man In the
Iron Mask,” of course, but that was filmed, I believe, before
Cameron’s epic), but though he glowers and struts about
confidently (especially when put into his “Lord of the Flies”-
“Apocalypse Now” mode), he still seems lightweight and
scrawny for the role, and the narration he’s forced to recite
through the picture is alternately flat and ponderously poetic.
The only other cast members who make much of an impression are
Swinton, who quickly becomes grating, and Robert Carlyle, who
chews up the scenery in a way he neglected to do in “The World
Is Not Enough.” Canet and Ledoyen, by contrast, are physically
attractive but dramatically inert.

“The Beach” represents something of a comeback for the
“Trainspotting” team of Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and
scripter John Hodge after their dismal last feature, “A Life
Less Ordinary.” But though very competently put together and
never boring, the picture is oddly hollow despite its glossy
surface. As a parable of Paradise (and Sanity) Lost, it’s
superficial and thematically muddled, and it can’t really be
recommended except for its considerable virtues as a travelogue.