Dead Calm

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(1989) ★★★★

Sky Movies Crime & Thriller: Saturday 8 August, 5.35pm

We Brits may like to think we’re able to make thrillers as mean and lean as the Yanks. But examples of authentic excellence are isolated – Michael Caine in Get Carter, Stacy Keach in The Squeeze, dear departed Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday – before the advent of Guy Ritchie and his mockney dross. Britons can, of course, make tasty thrillers but, like Peter ‘Bullitt’ Yates, Alan ‘Angel Heart’ Parker and Ridley ‘Alien’ Scott before them, they must first get Hollywood backing. The Aussies, though, seem to manage it on their own turf, no worries. At least, the likes of George Miller (all the Mad Maxes) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) did. Fresh from directing The Witches of Eastwick, Dead Calm’s co-producer Miller kept his hand in by taking charge of the second unit while Noyce (after too long a dalliance with remunerative TV mini-series) fully confirmed the promise of his first two striking features, Newsfront and Heatwave. Dead Calm is dead good, a superlative suspense thriller that got a bit lost in the shuffle amid a slew of late-80s ‘Dead’ flicks – Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in The Dead Pool, Don Johnson in John Frankenheimer’s Dead-Bang. But, thanks to Noyce’s confident deployment of claustrophobic close-ups, it plays almost as well on TV as it did on the big screen. The ingredients may be familiar, but the setting – the photogenic placidity of the Whitsunday Passage by the Great Barrier Reef – provides a constantly arresting backdrop for the tensely developed drama, its urgent sense of unease transmitted even in the opening titles which (almost, but not quite, imperceptibly) move outwards. Recovering from the traumatic death of their toddler son, Navy officer Sam Neill and his wife Nicole Kidman attempt to gain strength from an idyllic yacht cruise. Their tentative recuperation is rudely shattered by the sudden arrival of a young American (Billy Zane) from a crippled schooner. When Neill goes to investigate Zane’s weird story, the American overpowers Kidman and sets sail in the opposite direction. As Neill desperately attempts to revive the decrepit schooner (which is more than he can do for its human cargo), his increasingly determined missus must fend off the deranged Zane and figure out a way to return to Neill. In a remarkable performace that grows in stature as the taut plot exerts its stranglehold, Nicole Kidman’s resourceful heroine is reminiscent of a more slender version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. She’s no slouch with a harpoon, either. No surprise, then, that the tenacious Kidman attracted Hollywood’s attention in general, and Tom Cruise’s in particular (but that’s another story). The men, too, are solid. At first relishing the challenge, Neill frantically fights for his life aboard the sinking schooner while, in a rather more nuanced turn than his moustache-twirling twerp 10 years later in Titanic, Billy Zane’s embodiment of an unpredictable little-boy-lost psychosis strikes a neat balance between nervous laughter and edgy despair. Only an especially useless dog distracts from Dead Calm’s clammy tension, and the double-whammy ending will be no surprise to Fatal Attraction fans. Never mind, it’s still hard to see how even Orson Welles’ legendary unreleased The Deep (the great man’s own version of Charles Williams’ source novel, filmed in 1970) could improve on Noyce’s accomplished work. Because, with the added impetus of Graeme Revell’s inventively pounding score, this fist-clenching nail-biter helped set the tone for the 90s.

Certificate: 15

Duration: 92min

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Other Showings Time & Date
Sky Movies Crime/Thriller Thursday, 13 August at 6:35AM
Sky Movies Crime/Thriller Thursday, 13 August at 7:20PM