The Deep (Djúpið)

Iceland (2012) Dir. Baltasar Kormákur

When the chips are down and the odds insurmountable the favoured phrase employed to elaborate the gravity of the situation is “Survival of the fittest”; however in 1984, a chain smoking, hard drinking, overweight Icelandic fisherman named Guðlaugur Friðþórsson defied the odds by surviving life threatening conditions for six hours in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Baltasar Kormákur, who helmed 2015’s the similarly themed Hollywood flop Everest, brings us his dramatisation of this remarkable story, a straight up detailing of events with no apparent needless embellishment or attempts to elevate our subject onto a higher pedestal. It is indeed a miraculous story but like Friðþórsson himself as illustrated in genuine interview footage running during the end credits, the whole thing is played down as just another day in the life of a chubby fisherman.

Our fictional fisherman is Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a 24 year-old who likes to party and is rude to his mother with whom he still lives. We meet him hitting the clubs the night before a big night fishing trip with five fellow crewmembers Jón (Stefán Hallur Stefánsson), Lárus (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson), Hannes (Björn Thors) and Raggi (Walter Grímsson). The weather was already troublesome but when the trawling net catches on a rock the boat runs into trouble and eventually capsizes.

As each crewmate falls to the turbulence of the icy waters Gulli and Raggi make it the farthest before Raggi dies of the head injuries he suffered earlier. With only seagulls as a guide Gulli manages to swim to a nearby island where he still has to battle the elements before finding help. Later, extensive medical examinations leave doctors confounded as to how Gulli survived.

It is rather amazing that such a story of incredible human perseverance and survival isn’t more well know outside of Iceland or at least in terms of longevity and notoriety. As related in the film Friðþórsson was brought to London for a number of stringent tests on his ability to withstand such freezing temperatures and the story made the famed New Scientist publication at the time.  

Perhaps this was the incentive Kormákur needed to make this film, as the oddly endearing idea that Icelanders make the best fishermen because of such superhuman endurance must be a hugely patriotic doctrine because of this incident. Friðþórsson himself shrugs it off as such and the film ends on this rather hopeful note of self-belief after the final act sees Gulli awkwardly waning under the media spotlight.

At the risk of spoiling anything or appearing reductive Gulli/Friðþórsson both survived because they were fat. I doubt this is an invitation for large people to try and re-enact this ordeal to see if they too can withstand sub zero temperatures and mother nature at her angriest but this is the conclusion the scientists came to when testing our impervious protagonist.

It sounds like a recipe for a mean spirited comedy yet this film is anything but, instead paying tribute to the indomitable stamina and drive of man when force into adversity. Aside from the water, Gulli was thrown about by the waves as he arrived on land then walked bare foot across a rocky beach where lumps of lava sat from a nearby eruption many years earlier. Yet, despite his cuts, bruises and exhaustion, Gulli only had mild signs of hypothermia!

This is also a story of redemption without the overt religious overtones, although Gulli does say a prayer or two and converses with the seagulls as if they were heaven sent to guide him. Elsewhere the young wife of Raggi, Halla (Thora Bjorg Helga) and their two young sons pray for Raggi’s safe return every night with the final goodbye coming from his parting words to Gulli.

Assuming Friðþórsson was the same Gulli comes out of this experience a humbled man, keener to pay tribute to his fallen friends than talk about himself, while realising he has plenty of making up to do with his mother and other people he once disrespected. It is this second chance at life which lead to Gulli not wanting the mantle of “national hero” or “miracle man”, and we find ourselves giving him this benefit of the doubt for someone who was a divisive figure to begin with.

While clearly dramatised Kormákur has gone for a docu-drama feel to tell this story, with handheld camera work, a muted colour palette and a stripped down presentation which eschews musical scores and overplayed drama. When the boat hits trouble Kormákur doesn’t overcook the scene with lashings of special effects, improbable risky scenarios played out through quick cut edits, flashy cinematography, instead it is workmanlike, direct and unfiltered for maximum credibility.

The effect is as jarring, uncomfortable and tumultuous for the audience as it is the victims and the tragedy of their deaths is handled with a quiet dignity but still packs an emotional punch. The silence as the bodies drift away in the dark of night hits is vastly more evocative than the emotive musical overture other directors would have employed here.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson – despite being 39 at the time thus making for a very unconvincing 24 year-old – handles the physicality with grit and commitment, and the emotional trauma of Gulli’s ordeal with an understated sense of pathos. The recreation of the early 80’s is a mixed bag – references to BETAMAX videos and cranky little tube TVs provide the nostalgia but other aesthetics such as clothes and haircuts are too modern.

It’s difficult not to be amazed by the story told in The Deep more so because it genuinely happened and while it is a tribute to the resilience of the Icelandic fishermen it’s not an overbearingly emetic flag waving exercise some countries may produce. A fascinating and humbling viewing experience indeed.


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