What's the big deal?
Dead Calm is a psychological thriller film released in 1989 and was loosely based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Williams. Directed by Phillip Noyce, the film depicts an isolated couple on board their yacht disturbed by a frantic survivor of a nearby sinking whose story doesn't quite add up. The film stars Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane and was filmed around the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The film represents the first complete adaptation of the Williams novel as Orson Welles failed to complete his own adaptation of the novel titled The Deep. The film also represented one of the last projects Kidman completed in her native Australia before she achieved mainstream success in Hollywood with 1990's Days Of Thunder. The film was a success with critics who praised the performances of the cast and the cinematography but the reshot ending was derided for being too sensational. The film brought international recognition to Kidman as well as Zane, both of whom would go on to enjoy successful careers in Hollywood.
What's it about?
Rae Ingram and her naval officer husband John are mourning the loss of their son after he is killed in a car accident. John suggests a few quiet days out at sea onboard their yacht so they set sail for a quiet and picturesque patch of the Pacific. However, their holiday takes on a strange twist after they notice a lone sailor approaching their own boat as fast as they can. The rower, Hughie Warriner, is clearly in some distress and claims to have escaped a nearby sinking vessel after his fellow companions all succumbed to food poisoning. As Hughie collapses into an exhausted sleep, John decides to investigate Hughie's story by sailing to the wreck and leaving Rae and their dog with Hughie.
However, the truth is far more sinister and as John realises that Hughie is clearly not who he claims to be, Hughie quickly wakes up and begins to commandeer the Ingram's vessel. As John struggles to keep track and keep up with his own ship as it sails away, Rae begins to get an idea of exactly who Hughie is and finds herself in unimaginable danger.
Captain John Ingram
Release Date (UK)
1st May, 1990
What's to like?
It's easy to imagine a story like Dead Calm appealing to someone like Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock because this is a stripped-back and basic thriller that manages to hit the target. With a cast of just three, the film has the luxury of indulging in some truly beautiful cinematography despite being mostly set in the open ocean - which has never looked so inviting. It is also able to explore the narrative in a greater degree than you might expect from a simple and somewhat predictable premise. With a lesser cast, this might have seemed like melodramatic fluff but Neill, Kidman and Zane are superb. Neill doesn't strike me as a man of action but he seems perfectly cast as the naval captain struggling to come to his wife's rescue but Kidman and Zane are electric as the damsel-in-distress and the obvious psychopath. Zane has never been better in his career as he is here but Kidman is the star, morphing from grieving mother to scheming heroine willing to do whatever she needs to in order to survive.
If anything, the tension between Kidman and Zane feels much more compelling than the stranding of Neill on board the sinking ship. The pair generate so much chemistry that you almost forget about poor Neill - at times, they are spitting poison at each other in their battle of wits while at other times, there is an unexpected sexual tension between them that Kidman is able to use to her advantage. The film is easy to watch and easy to follow with magnetic performances from its lead cast but more than that, the film exudes a quality that is hard to ignore. It almost feels like it could be a theatrical production but as a movie, it is given the benefit of being out on the ocean waves instead of stuck on a stage.
- Welles worked on The Deep between 1966 and 1969, shooting scenes off the coast of Yugoslavia. But the production was plagued by technical and financial problems and as the shoot became more sporadic, Welles suspended production in 1970 to focus on other projects. With the death of lead actor Laurence Harvey in 1973, the film was effectively dead in the water. The original negatives have since been lost although work prints are known to exist.
- The Black Schooner (the ship that Hughie escapes from) was portrayed by the Golden Plover, a historic tall ship based in the area that offered trips to paying clients. During the shoot, the actual crew of the Plover suggested burning the real ship instead of a replica due to the Plover's poor condition. The real Golden Plover eventually broke up in 2011, having been neglected and rotting away.
- The film's original ending was changed at the request of Warner Bros. who felt the fate of one of the characters was too ambiguous. Audience reaction at test screenings proved negative so the ending seen in the film was shot almost seven months after principal filming had concluded.
What's not to like?
There's not much wrong with Dead Calm but what it does get wrong stops it from becoming a classic. The ending, as discussed above in Fun Facts, feels a little generic for my tastes and makes this genuine thriller feel a little like your everyday below-average slasher flick. And some of the character's decisions and development feel a little unnatural - while Kidman's heroine is compelling, the character development seems a bit too severe to be properly believable. There is also a sense of potential within the film - take Zane, who has made a career out of playing sneering but fairly bland villains. I've never particularly rated him as an actor but he is much better in this film than I have seen him in anything else including Titanic. I also wondered how the film might have been under the direction of someone like Hitchcock who might have squeezed every ounce of tension from the film instead of shooting perfectly blue ocean waves.
But in all fairness, there isn't much you can find fault with in Dead Calm. The film has a well deserved reputation for quality and I can't disagree - it's rare to find a film like this that not only overcomes its limitations but makes the most of them. It's a straight-forward thriller that does what it sets out to do and despite occasional lapses into lurid melodrama, it's a film that I'd happily watch again. If nothing else, it serves as a testimony to Kidman's considerable talents as an actress and it understandably launched her onto the A-list although it wouldn't be until 2003 until she finally secured her Best Actress Oscar for The Hours.
Should I watch it?
Dead Calm may be simple but its hard to fault for its engrossing narrative, gripping tension, gorgeous visuals and immense performances. Kidman became a star thanks to her performance alongside the always dependable Neill while Zane puts in the best performance of his career and the three of them help to make this film a wonderfully old-school and universal thriller that offers plenty of shocks, thrills and spills. Welles' loss is Kidman's gain.
Great For: Nicole Kidman, the often overlooked Australian film industry, seafaring types
Not So Great For: agoraphobic viewers, the easily spooked
What else should I watch?
Sea-based films have always been around in some form or another, whether its survival-against-nature tales like Adrift or more family-friendly fare like Disney's version of Swiss Family Robinson. Perhaps the biggest sea-based disaster film is Titanic which sees star-crossed lovers Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio attempt to survive the sinking of the famous ship as well as Kate's vengeful husband Billy Zane - coincidentally. But if James Cameron's mawkish melodrama isn't your thing then perhaps The Poseidon Adventure will float your boat, if you'll excuse the pun. The original 1972 version had an all-star cast trapped on board an overturned liner that featured Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell, Shelley Winters and even a pre-comic-reinvention Leslie Nielsen while the 2006 remake - simply titled Poseidon - featured Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss going through the motions.
Noyce may not be a household name but has slowly created an enviable portfolio of films. From Tom Clancy adaptations like Clear And Present Danger and Patriot Games to crime thrillers like The Bone Collector to dramas like Rabbit-Proof Fence and action thriller Salt, Noyce has quietly become one of Australia's most successful directors in Hollywood alongside George Miller, Baz Luhrmann and Peter Weir. His most recent film, 2019's Above Suspicion, received a very limited release and followed the real-life events that lead to the first murder conviction of an FBI agent.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox