December 4, 2012

castawayOne day, at the beginning of the decade, a middle-aged Londoner named Gerald Kingsland placed a personal ad in a magazine. He was looking for a “wife” to spend a year with him on a deserted tropical island. Lucy Irvine, a young secretary, answered the ad and joined the experiment.

What resulted from his escapade was a perilous year on the island and two books by the participants. And, now, a movie, Castaway, which turns the experience into a vehicle for some distressingly simple-minded ideas and a great deal of naked flesh.

Most of the naked flesh belongs to Amanda Donohoe, who plays Lucy; Oliver Reed plays Gerald. Donohoe has a great body, which is important in a movie such as this. It may also be the film’s only selling point.

Much of the film depends on the sexual tension between the two, once they reach the uninhabited island. After meeting on a blind date, they began a sexual relationship, but once on the island Lucy suddenly calls it off. Since she is, unavoidably, the only game in town, this leaves Gerald with some—ah—unresolved feelings.

The movie charts the many disasters that plague these two during their stay. They are stung by bees, poisoned by plants, dried up by the sun, washed out by a hurricane. Their most exciting conversation, held at the point of starvation, is about their favorite foods, a chat that Gerald says is better than sex. (Not that he has much choice, at that point.)

Late in the year Gerald is enlisted as a handyman by some natives at a neighboring island, and they bring over their appliances for him to tinker with. Which prompts Lucy to note that their exotic journey to Eden has become “a bloody garden suburb where people take their lawnmowers to get fixed.”

Mankind’s inevitable tendency to civilize (i.e., destroy) nature is spelled out with some insistence; by the end of the year, Lucy and Gerald are listening to radios, tossing beer cans, and munching Ruffles potato chips.

This heavy-handedness is a disappointment because this is a film directed by Nicolas Roeg, who has made some of the more challenging films of the last couple of decades (Performance, Don’t Look Now). Roeg has always been a filmmaker of social comment, but his capacity for subtlety seems to have decreased over the years. There are flashes of the old style here, but when Oliver Reed dresses in a skirt and applies lipstick, it’s but a shadow of the inspired identity-confusion of Mick Jagger and James Fox in Performance.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

It sounds like a good subject for Roeg, and for Reed, and for Donohoe too, for that matter. The film’s argument is just a little too pat, alas.