One of the great pleasures of the movies is watching two beautiful people fall in love before our eyes. Even if it’s just pretend, it can transport us and send us out of the theater swooning. But there needs to be more to it than just that. In Submergence, the latest feature from Wim Wenders, the German-born director of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire nails the first part thanks to the easy-on-the-eyes teaming of James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander, but doesn’t offer up much beyond that besides stale soap suds. It feels like The English Patient lite.
Based on a novel by J.M. Ledgard, Submergence stars McAvoy as a British spy named James whose cover identity is as a globe-trotting water engineer. Vikander is Danny, a bio-mathematician who studies life at the bottom of the ocean. On the eve of the biggest assignments of their respective lives (he’s going to Somalia to assassinate a jihadi; she’s heading to Iceland to plumb the dark depths in a submersible), they meet by chance at a posh inn on the coast of Normandy. Who knew scientists had such rich expense accounts? Sparks fly and soon they’re making love and plans for the future in front of a roaring fire. But, of course, their duties pull them apart just when things are getting interesting.
The film cuts back and forth between their few days of Harlequin romance bliss and their missions. But every time we flash to McAvoy rotting in a Somali jail or Vikander in a lab coat playing with beakers and staring longingly at the sea, the film loses its momentum. The script by Erin Dignam (The Last Face) is too oblique for its own good, ladling on blunt aquatic metaphors with a trowel — or, I guess, a hose. Submergence looks gorgeous and the two leads definitely have chemistry when they’re on screen together, but as soon as they’re separated, the film just seems to just tread water. C