“Rent or the beach with you!”
In an alternative universe where WWII ended in widespread annihilation—England left under a perpetual cloud of poisonous chemical—life’s creature comforts have all but been erased. The gas mask becomes your best friend and survival hinges upon a hermetically sealed container whether it’s a home, commercial business, or submarine (the logistics of how oxygen is pumped in and carbon dioxide pumped out the type of pedantic thought able to ruin the fun of filmmaker Andrew Harmer‘s post-apocalyptic black comedy you should avoid). Thanks to Mildred (Carol Robb) and Cecil (David Schaal), a select few lucky souls have sanctuary from certain death in just such a metallic submersible vessel. A retrofitted hotel coined The Fitzroy, there’s literally nowhere else to satisfy your desire for a traditional summer holiday.
Think Wes Anderson style by way of Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s deliciously dark Delicatessen in premise (but don’t call it a Grand Budapest Hotel knock-off as Harmer has been working since his Kickstarter campaign was funded back in 2012, two years before Gustave H’s tale in Zubrowka). The quarters might be cramped, but the cast of characters present is vibrantly eccentric with personal quirks, self-centered motivations, and a yearning for power in a broken, lawless land. Mildred and Cecil know what they’re offering is rare and they will put the screws to anyone who dares look upon their entrepreneurial service as charity. You better pay rent on time (in myriad ways depending on what you have to ply) and behave civilized or it’s permanent exile on the beach for you.
The only true saintly innocent aboard is Bernard the bellboy (Cerith Flinn). He’s a Cinderella of sorts made to work like a dog and ensure nothing goes awry (whether it’s unrest amongst the guests or the latest puncture hole in the hull risking to asphyxiate everyone with the polluted atmosphere outside). It’s a thankless job without payment besides a free room. But frankly, what good is money anyway? Peacekeeper, confidant, and whipping boy in equal measure, Bernard passes out label-less cans for breakfast (meat serving as a delicacy only dog food can provide) and mops the ship in hopes of avoiding the day’s verbal thrashing from Cecil. A romantic-at-heart pining over the beautiful Sonya (Jan Anderson), Bernard dreams of a simple life removed from the unpleasantness surrounding him.
That dream may finally be answered as Sonya takes a shine, scheming to appeal to his lustful fantasies and desire for freedom. You see, since they’re on a submarine, chain of command plausibly dictates “ownership.” If Cecil were to die with Mildred framed as the perpetrator, The Fitzroy would feasibly fall into the hands of he who was next in line: the bellboy. Could Bernard ever stoop to such a heinous act like murder, the whispers of love in his ear pushing him to the brink? Maybe. But with a couple wrinkles added to the equation this fateful week (new guests in John Wark and Sarah Griffin‘s honeymooners Mr. and Mrs. Fisher along with the “council’s” hotel inspector as played by Kenneth Collard), it won’t be so easy.
Harmer’s cast is rounded out by a menagerie ranging from Mr. Thompson’s (David Gant) obnoxious old man spouting doom (literally the word “Doom!”) to Anne-Sophie Marie‘s “crazy lady” chained in the sand on shore. There’s Stuart McGugan‘s Captain Hunt with Henrietta the chicken, James Hamer-Morton‘s sadistically madcap Dr. Lewis, a 1950s era band with its forever frustrated cymbal player unable to manufacture a crash (Ant Payne), and the nicest little old lady this side of Margate in Norma Cohen‘s Mrs. Ellis. They all have their own narrow-minded outlooks on the present, personal vendettas adding more chaos than already exists once Sonya’s plan moves forward with Bernard unwittingly caught in the center. Who will die? Who will be blamed? And who will survive this sinking ship we call life?
The film will answer those questions as the surreal premise devolves into aggression, pointing fingers, and everyone for him/herself attitudes. Feel confidant knowing the journey will be a charming one with plenty of British humor-fueled laughs and a stunningly detailed set. The latter is a sight to see considering the production’s budget was a paltry 72,000 pounds raised on a 60,000 pounds crowd-funding campaign. The good news for Harmer was that it appeared he already had his locale secured—the derelict Russian submarine seen in his pitch video—so the overhead was really to entice actors, shore up set dressings, and provide time and resources for a more extensive visual effects process than original anticipated. It may have taken five years, but the aesthetic lives up to expectations.
It feels as though we’re transported back to the 1950s in costume, environment, and hard-boiled dialogue (an accompanying comic featuring six short stories set in the same world providing more examples of this parallel Britain laid to waste). While gas masks are never firmly affixed to faces, this fact only adds to the project’s endearing nature as a labor of love just left of center that delivers a unique brand of alternative history. And those seeking a good old-fashioned British comedy won’t be disappointed. The Fiztroy is overflowing with dry humor (“Who are you?” “Inspector.” “Inspector …” “THE Inspector.”), visual gags (a faulty steam pipe leaking a path throughout the sub), and unforgettable characters (Mrs. Ellis biding time for her parrot to die so she can eat it).
There’s a farcical lilt a la Clue, but no one is shrewd enough for elaborate reveals to which we aren’t already privy. It’s a submarine wherein two people can’t easily pass the other in the hallway, so little is done or said that isn’t quickly deciphered to be close to truth. As a result the characters must often do things hastily and in the moment since premeditation is never as exacting a process as one may hope. Moral compassion is tested and mistakes will be made that risk the wellbeing of everyone on board (or at least those trapped and forgotten) thanks to the wild roller coaster adventure of surviving kangaroo courts, power-mad executioners, and outlandishly over-the-top would-be victims with thin membranes barely keeping their likely demises out.