Restored and re-released as part of BFI’s Flipside label, unearthing overlooked alternative and unusual British cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End is as bold and brilliant now as it’s ever been, over 40 years since its initial release.
It’s London at the end of the sixties, and fifteen year-old Michael (John Moulder-Brown) leaves school to make his own way in the world of work. He is hired as an attendant at the local swimming baths, where he is shown the ropes by the feisty Susan (Jane Asher). It’s not long before a mix of naivety and hormones causes Mike to become increasingly attached to his co-worker, and the two begin a teasing game of sexual tension, repression and rejection which quickly spirals out of control. However, this isn’t some ‘Confessions of a Pool Attendant’ sex romp or puerile ‘end of the pier’ smut, but a frequently funny and pitch-perfect encapsulation of adolescent obsession.
Mike’s first steps into the adult world are faltering ones. There are only brief glimpses of his life outside of work and no real indication why he has left school, even when his parents and former fellow pupils pay a visit. And for a good long amount of the film, we rarely venture outside the baths themselves, feeling trapped amongst the sometimes peculiar clientele in the strange world of shampoo and saunas. But when jealousy takes hold and he interferes with Susan’s complicated love-life, his hilariously petty acts of sabotage reveal just how inexperienced he is when it comes to relationships. He’s aware of the gulf between him and Susan, but buoyed by her continual mixed messages, he presses on regardless, his childish attention-seeking behaviour carrying a painful undercurrent of desperation.
That’s not to say that Deep End is a sombre experience. Rather, it is energetic, lively and highly enjoyable, filled with amusing quirks, smart dialogue and some pretty bawdy humour. A game cameo from former blonde bombshell Diana Dors as a lascivious customer obsessed with George Best is especially memorable. And in certain respects, it recalls Richard Ayoade’s Submarine – not enough to stand up to scrutiny beyond general themes and an aquatic title, but enough to suggest a good double-bill.
But it’s a stand-out sequence set in Soho which really captures the mood, as Mike waits impatiently on the streets for Susan and her fiancé to emerge from a nightclub, getting involved with strip club proprietors, ladies of the night, and Burt Kwouk as a hot dog salesman. And all this to Can’s excellent, sprawling, bubbling ‘Mother Sky’ (while Cat Stevens provides the title theme ‘But I Might Die Tonight’). Indeed, it’s one of the few outdoor locations to actually be shot in London, with the majority of filming taking place in Munich, adding an interesting but perfect veneer of oddity to an already fairly international production – many members of the supporting cast were actually German, adopting very convincing accents.
It’s the two lead actors, however, who really anchor the film. Mike is unsure of himself or his emotions, and though a veteran child actor, Moulder-Brown’s fumbling performance carries across the uncertainty of youth remarkably well. And Asher (more famous then for being Paul McCartney’s former fiancé than a purveyor of quality cakes) is impressive and confident. The unsettled and uneven relationship that builds between them feels real, thanks to their investment in their characters and often improvised interplay. And Skolimowski’s skilled direction has lasting impact, particularly as the film enters darker territory; as innocence is eroded by the grubby bathhouse surroundings and its regulars, and obsessive infatuation spills over, the film becomes a more surreal and transcendent work.
In the end, Deep End thoroughly deserved its status as ‘a long-forgotten classic’, and now can thankfully be considered simply as ‘a classic’.