In March 1984, the Hellisey VE 503 fishing trawler capsized off the south coast of Iceland, leaving only one man, ‘Gulli’ Fridthórsson to survive the tragedy.

Baltasar Kormakur’s film, The Deep (now showing at Cornerhouse), is a poignantly told tale where the affable Gulli finds himself at the centre of an extraordinary yet true story. When human beings find themselves cast adrift in water as cold as 6°, they almost always die and it’s the exposure to the cold that kills them. They become hypothermic and eventually succumb. The sinking of the Titanic is the obvious example when so many people who didn’t make it onto the lifeboats died while waiting for rescue.

That’s what should have happened to Gulli, but it didn’t. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he swam for six hours until he reached the shore. Then he walked for another two kilometres until he found help.

Kormakur’s film has a quiet force about it. We meet Gulli and his mates on a big night out before they sleep it off and then head to sea while the rest of the community is still sleeping. Prior knowledge of the film’s plot gives that horrible sense of foreboding as one of the crew, Palli, sneaks into his children’s room to give his two sons a kiss goodbye. His wife waves him off with that look of stoic anxiety, so common to those married to people who earn their living in dangerous professions.

The film pulls no punches when disaster strikes and the scenes of the boat sinking are utterly terrifying.

Gulli’s subsequent struggle for survival is told partially in flashback and flashforward when he reflects on his existence to date and what he might do in the future, given the prize of life. Kormakur cuts the film at these points to resemble the shape of ’80s camera snapshots.

There are similarities with Danny Boyle’s 127 hours where we as the audience get that unsettlingly intrusive view of a man on his own, trying not to lose his mind as he attempts to stay alive, relying only on his own resources. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Gulli has the job of carrying the film and plays the role with an unexpected pathos. He begins as an overweight oaf who likes to smoke and drink too much and seems to be primarily concerned with getting his head down for a nap. As the film progresses he reveals more layers as he struggles to cope with survivor’s guilt and the interest that the scientific community has in his remarkable survival. His conversations with Palli’s children – as they try to make sense of their loss – are beautifully understated in their warmth and compassion.

The Deep is an exquisite film, which shows that a story, simply told, often produces great cinema.

Review by Charlie Bell


Cornerhouse Photo credit Ben PageWhat: The Deep

Where: Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester