(UK - 1987)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Oliver Reed, Amanda Donohoe
Genre: Adventure/Drama
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Allan Scott based on Lucy Irvine's novel
Cinematography: Harvey Harrison
Composer: Stanley Myers, Hans Zimmer
Runtime: 117 minutes

"I never give up once I've started" - Lucy Irvine

Close to 20 years before the idiotic Survivor TV series and its pitiful "reality" clones, Gerald Kingsland and Lucy Irvine ventured to the uninhabited Tuin Island to survive through primitive means. Trying to prove that man and woman would find nirvana if they were left alone and forced to rely upon each other for a year, Gerald took out a personal add in Time Out magazine and found Lucy to be the most appealing, if not the best qualified candidate to accompany him.

The gruff Gerald (Oliver Reed) has been around for about half a century, but is a resourceful man of many talents that's much livelier than his age would suggest. He repairs appliances, teaches children to swim, and writes books about his adventures on remote islands. His work is important, but he seems to take at least as much pride in his ability to get on with other people. He's always trying to put a smile on someone's face, utilizing his various magic tricks to entertain himself as well as others. Gerald seems like one of those people that's better to see a little than a lot though. He's no longer with his wife and has a strained relationship with his older son (Paul Reynolds) who only comes over because his father lets him smoke.

Lucy (Amanda Donohoe) is half Gerald's age. She has a low-level office job (clerk?) for Inland Revenue that doesn't present much opportunity or earn her a great deal of respect. She has not been given the chance to come into her own, and thus hasn't really found herself.

Early scenes establish Gerald's attraction to Lucy that distracts him and makes him kind of goofy. While pulling her seat back so she can sit down in the restaurant for dinner, he can't help staring at her impressive natural breasts. Although he knows how tough it is to survive, we imagine him having visions of lounging on the beach admiring a beautiful young nude woman. However, he's discreet and dignified enough to compose himself and explain what's needed to make the trip a success.

Gerald: The most important thing is enough money, right sort of island, proper water supply, right sort of companion.
Lucy: (chuckling) In that order?

She seems attracted to him too, and they do test the relationship out by sleeping together in her apartment. However, Gerald is rather oblivious to the kind of woman she is and why she's going on the trip. Lucy laughing when he assumes she's either a secretary or a nurse and responding "are those the choices?" should give him a hint, but as he says, "I don't understand?"

On the mainland, Gerald gets his way. For instance, they get married despite Lucy being totally against caving in to some out of date immigration law or doing it for money (they've already spent the entire refundable book advance Gerald got from the publishing company on setting up the trip).

Once they embark on their voyage to Tuin, the film starts firing on all cylinders. Adapted by regular Roeg screen writer Allan Scott from Lucy Irvine's well-regarded although unfortunately out of print novel about their real trip, Castaway falls perfectly into the sphere of director Nicolas Roeg's films. Thematically, the film deals with Roeg's typical topics of sex, fantasy, obsession, communication, reliance, need, & hypocrisy.

Returning to a natural setting that allowed him to make the remarkable Walkabout, Roeg and cinematographer Harvey Harrison (who returned for Roeg's less than stellar segment in Aria and his good Jim Henson produced children's film The Witches as well as doing the mediocre Salome's Last Dance for Ken Russell) deliver breathtaking sequences that in typical enigmatic Roeg manner highlight nature's beauty as well as it's harshness. Harrison's best shots involve the water. The most impressive of which are his underwater photography, but the shots from in the water out and vice versa are sometimes their equal. What makes them all so good is the use of light and color (especially shades of blue) to make the shots say something about the material and/or set the mood. While it's not Roeg's best work, it's more impressive than what noted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Being There, The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, The Patriot) did in similar locations for his underseen and rated second feature Crusoe.

Roeg is one of the few directors that has never bored me because even when his stories have been imperfect he's been able to camouflage these weaknesses until the end of the film with the compelling allegorical vagueness and a fractured time scheme. His films rise to the level where you aren't quite sure if something is reality or fantasy, but the material is treated with a seriousness that gives it no less impact either way.

Stylistically, Castaway is not as challenging as most of Roeg's other films though. He's rightfully chosen to keep the time line pretty much intact because the idea of the trip itself provides a distinct journey and end point. He's also presented his dream sequences in the midst of what's obviously reality, cutting back and forth between two scenes the same way he does when he draws parallels. The straightforwardness of the later is not a plus in my opinion, but it makes Castaway Roeg's most accessible piece.

In similar fashion to his very good Sci-Fi The Man Who Fell To Earth, the narrative is minimized and purposely lacking in explanatory dialogue. It's very broken and it doesn't telegraph the changes that are going to occur. What it does is provide you with the images and force you to not only interpret Roeg's observations, but also to make your own. It asks you to decide how you would react in the same situation as well as giving you some suggestions. Sure, the plot is not the easiest to digest, but if you aren't struggling some with material that is about a struggle then it's either good for escapist entertainment or nothing at all. A film that makes you feel the way the characters do is almost certainly going to be a successful one. Of course, whether people will like it or not is another story entirely.

Certainly Roeg is a director that doesn't require to be liked or that you like his characters, which he's not afraid to regularly show in an unflattering light because human beings and "their" world are very imperfect. He can be a very tough cookie to crack, especially if you have difficulty with highly edited pieces (to me the editing of his films is consistently one of their biggest strengths, with Bad Timing being the perfect example of a film that gains immeasurably by the way it's pieced together), but all his films are provocative and he's capable of creating some of the best looking shots, sequences, and color schemes ever put to film. Hopefully some year artistic films like this that actually engage the audience that stays with them and offers them complex situations and reactions to ponder will be a preferable alternative to inanely sentimental ones that feature Tom Hanks jabbering about volleyball while stranded on an island, but I'm not holding my breath.

What impresses me so much about this particular film is its balance. It not only splits between an unromanticized account of Gerald & Lucy's day to day struggle to survive and the power struggle of the couple that grows into an underexpressed fondness and love, but it does so without taking sides. Mankind's relationship with each other and nature in an uncivilized and somewhat civilized setting are explored in the honest, unrestricted manner you'd expect from a Roeg film.

The pretenses of a relationship are the key and most focal theme of the film. Sex here is a metaphor for power. Gerald thinks he's going to teach Lucy how to survive and in return she's going to put out whenever he's in the mood, which seemingly will be often considering he's about to tackle her as soon as they are alone on the island. This is a great scene with Gerald being so impatient he starts running at Lucy the second she takes her clothes off, but just before he can take her down she turns to him holding a water bottle up as if to block him and says "Tea?" to which he deflatedly responds "Ahh…"

The reluctant Lucy is not here to be anyone's love slave. She's here to learn, grow, and prove something to herself, all of which a trip with a proven self-efficient survivor like Gerald should present her with plentiful opportunity to do. She's determined to use this survival knowledge to mold herself into a strong, efficient, independent human being.

People tend to see Lucy as the big tease, an observation I disagree with. Donohoe wears little to nothing the whole time they are on the island as an expression of her freedom. Lucy can't have sex because giving herself up to Gerald represents sacrificing herself and compromising the individuality and goals she's striving to attain.

Roeg effectively shows the difference between strength and will within a 30-second span that covers their first night on the island. She is strong willed from the moment they get there, getting pissed that Gerald forgot the iodine and extra flour supplies. At almost the same time we see Lucy beating the ground because snakes hate vibrations and nearly getting scared to death when she enters their tent thinking Gerald is sleeping only to have him yell "gotcha!" The later is very well filmed with their not coincidentally red tent illuminated so vaguely by a light through the left it casts everything in a dark rogue. Just as Lucy is almost comfortable, there's an abrupt cut to a midshot from above of them lying next to each other, but it's startling because about the only thing we can see is the light on Gerald's face, now only from his suddenly turned on flashlight as he yells. Lucy's will remains unflinching though, and in resisting Gerald's advances she reclaims the power he took by startling her.

"You know something Lucy? You're as good as a man to have around here," says Gerald. Like Roeg and Donald Cammell's brilliant Performance, the film once again explores gender blending. For a good portion of the film Lucy is becoming more masculine and Gerald more feminine. Lucy is in the water with a knife trying to get supper while Gerald is dancing or usually lying about on beach.

Lucy's sexuality is never in question, but it's paralyzing to her would be partner. In what he sees as failing to cultivate her sexual interest, Gerald retreats in desperation. He becomes a lazy defeated man that's a poor excuse for a shell of his old self. Instead of worrying about how they are going to survive and teaching Lucy things that would help THEIR cause, he miserably loafs pretending to be a man that only cares about a cold beer and a good screw. He's in a constant state of brooding, interrupted only by some tactless come-ons, complaints, and excuses. In Gerald's defense, it does not take him long to develop health problems that make it difficult for him to do anything whether he wants to or not.

Lucy essentially lied to get the gig. She's in love with the island and the concept of being able to coexist with nature. That does include coexisting with Gerald, but the terms must be mutual. On the mainland though, she pretended she was interested in Gerald and had no problem consummating the relationship. While Gerald's reaction to not getting any can't be justified, her suddenly repellent nature cannot be either. Although lack of rain plays a major factor, the selfishness of both is the bigger reason they nearly die of starvation and malnutrition.

One could say that their being saved by outsiders at their lowest points is a convenience of the script, but I see it differently. The point is to show that they survived in spite of their excesses and selfishness. The film does not portray them as the great white survivors; they are just a stubborn couple that may have had the ability but got lucky considering they didn't work together. That said, it also shows Lucy is a pretty resourceful individual considering she kept them alive for quite a while without much help from Gerald. This point could have been played up more had there been anything in the film about Lucy being the only one that made it through the entire year with Gerald.

The man against nature scenes are impressive. Usually films make it seem like conquering the island just requires knowledge and hard work. Here though, Gerald & Lucy are constantly getting beat up by the jungle. They trip, stumble, fall, get nicked and hacked up by bushes and sticks. The point of what island life is really like is punctuated by the stark contrast of the soundtrack, which typically is serene if not melancholy, when it idealizes. Stanley Myers soundtrack is basically only used during these scenes without dialogue where man is one with nature, or at least trying to be.

The scene where they arrive on Tuin is a classic Roeg ecological parable. It starts out as such a beautiful scene with sunshine, blue sky, calm ocean, a pleasant breeze, and all sorts of exotic creatures in action. As the humans get closer, everything gets rougher and more chaotic because they are about to spoil the untouched area. Donohoe falls forward joyfully onto the glorious sand while Reed waves both hands in exaltation while yelling "Yes." Then Reed sits down for a smoke and the captain of the boat pisses on a bush.

The film deals with the facades people put up to help get what they want from a relationship as well as the problems of getting to know someone too well. The Australian sailors Jason (Tony Rickards) & Rod (Todd Rippon) assume the trip is so intimate that there's nothing they won't know about each other by the time the year is up. One also realizes that's not such a good thing because there's "no pretenses left, nothing to hide behind."

Lucy: You're such a liar
Gerald: What did I do wrong now?
Lucy: You're whole character is a lie. You pretend you don't read, don't think, don't listen. You pretend you're just a gimme a good lay, a good beer, and I'm happy sort of chap.
Gerald: Lucy, everybody leads their secret life where even secrets have secrets.
Lucy: Sure.
Gerald: Women love to skewer us, love to figure us out and then pigeonhole us. He's reliable. He's quite but gentle. He's sweet with the kids. I really do know the real inner him they say to themselves nodding wisely. Then they're amazed when suddenly he breaks rank and they, they discover all of a sudden that they never knew one sweet doodle, not even one sweet doodleshit about him.

Even though Gerald is miserable, he still wants desperately to preserve what he had. When Jason & Rod show up, he can't wait to get rid of them. Lucy likes them, but winds up defending Gerald because she's stuck with him and doesn't want to admit they haven't accomplished anything. She's too proud to admit she has little to be proud of.

Castaway deals with how difficult it is to live in isolation from several aspects. The intrusion of the industrialized western society is so evident in the later stages when Gerald is reborn by repairing various electronics and machinery for a man from another island named Ronald (Len Peihopa). All the technology and food Ronald supplies in exchange makes their trip so much easier, but it bastardizes the quest for Lucy because they didn't go to a deserted island to have to wear clothes and rely on someone other than each other. What kind of survivors could listen to the radio while eating frozen chicken under the generator's lights then leave for another island to repair an air conditioner? Lucy's speech against being the mechanized wife in the "bloody garden suburb" is Donohoe's acting high point of the film.

This is by far my favorite Oliver Reed performance. His very credibly diverse performance totally steals the show. I was particularly impressed by the way he played his little tricks on the mainland in comparison to the island. Starting off more like a magician, while his mannerisms weren't all that different, they showed he was reduced to bitter condescending sarcasm as he sulked while Lucy would prod him to put out the way he promised - sharing his survival techniques. His game went from amusing other people to maintaining his own sanity by driving someone else insane. Gerard generally went about this pretty obviously, but his one subtle torment when the sailors were around was the best. In a mocking voice, Reed informs them that the government made them get married because "no hanky panky on a deserted island unless you got a license" then he turns his head toward Donohoe with a devilish grin after saying "well, it could be worse, no hanky panky at all."

The film probably seems less impressive by comparison. For instance, Donohoe gives the required uninhibited performance and does it well, especially considering this is practically her first film work. She's no Theresa Russell though, and Roeg's wife had been featured in his previous three films. You can find better cinematography in Walkabout, better editing in Bad Timing, a superior score in Don't Look Now, the most stunning visuals scene in Eureka, and so on. To me Eureka is a flawed masterpiece. Like Dario Argento's best work, it impresses me so much in certain areas like the unbelievable discovery of gold sequence that I can't help but call it great in spite of some obvious flaws. Castaway on the other hand is a very solid film in all aspects that isn't really flawed, but it's not as riveting as his earlier work and doesn't totally blow me away.

While Roeg doesn't create spectacular imagery for Castaway like he did for The Man Who Fell To Earth and Eureka, he didn't really need to because he knows how to let nature do it's job. There's a beautiful long shot of Lucy emerging from the ocean during a sunset. Technically, one could say they did nothing but prop a camera up far away in the sand and have Donohoe walk out of the ocean. Other shots could be said to not even require that much, the calm of the water going up the foot of the beach or the giant waves plunging into the rocks. The composition of the former is awesome though with the slightly overcast sky in the top third, the sand in the bottom two thirds slanting up toward the right side, and the water coming in from the left side up the slanted sand. The later might happen the same time every day, but once you frame the shot properly it might also take a whole day to capture on film. In any case, sometimes it's more than enough to simply know when to shoot something. It scenes like these that made Castaway Roeg's most beautiful film behind Walkabout.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *