Tom Bateman

Thirteen Lives

20/11/22

Amazon Prime

I’m unfashionably late to this one. This film barely had a theatrical showing in the UK and somehow managed to slip onto streaming services without much fanfare. This is a shame, because Ron Howard’s ‘based on a true story’ feature steadfastly refuses to go down the typical Hollywood hero route, instead offering a meticulously researched account that unfolds its complex story with all the authority of a documentary.

It takes us back to the familiar events of July 2018, when Thai junior football team, The Wild Boars, accompanied by their assistant coach, decides to pay a trip to a popular tourist destination, the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Chiang Rai Province. As they wander deep into a rocky labyrinth, they are unaware that an early Monsoon has arrived, and that flood waters are already rising with terrifying speed, to come pouring in through every crevice. When the boys fail to show for a planned birthday celebration later that day, their parents raise the alarm – but, by now, their kids are trapped deep beneath the ground – and the rain is still pouring.

Among the many volunteers who subsequently arrive to lend a hand are two experienced divers from the British Cave Rescue Council, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortenson) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who handle the ensuing search through submerged tunnels with quiet calm and determination, only pausing to squabble over which of them ate the last custard cream. Both Mortensen and Farrell do a great job of capturing the men’s distinctive Coventry accents and their bluff, matter-of-fact approach to their highly specialised work – something which has already defeated the team of Navy SEALs who were first on the scene.

Finding the boys proves to be relatively easy, but getting them out alive – well, that’s a more complicated process, which will involve thirteen individual underwater journeys, each lasting more than seven hours. The boys have no experience of cave diving – indeed, some of them can’t even swim. With this in mind, Stanton and Volanthen decide to recruit more of their cave-diving chums. Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), Jason Malinson (Paul Gleeson) and Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton) all answer the call, but it is the latter who will give the team their decisive edge, largely because of the special skills he’s acquired through his day job…

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the enterprise has a successful outcome – indeed, pretty much the whole world knows how that went. But this film demonstrates what a complicated and dangerous procedure it was, how fraught with the possibility of disaster – and it is to Howard’s credit that though viewers already know the outcome, he nevertheless manages to generate nail-biting suspense throughout many of the extended underwater sequences.

He’s also keen to point out that the mission’s eventual success is not just due to the divers. There’s the young engineer who, with his own team of volunteers, works around the clock to divert millions of gallons of water away from the cave – and there are the local farmers who agree to sacrifice their entire rice crop for the year, in order to help with that process. There’s a whole army of ordinary people, cooking, carrying, doing anything necessary to keep the cogs turning. And happily, there’s no mention of a certain Mr Musk and his less than helpful approach to the situation.

Thirteen Lives is a story of human endurance and a celebration of the ingenuity of the many people who worked together to bring a seemingly impossible task to fruition.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Much Ado About Nothing

04/04/20

Digital Theatre

It’s the casting that initially draws us to this one. I mean, David Tennant and Catherine Tate? In a Shakespeare comedy? Intriguing, right? And here it is on Digital Theatre, filmed live at the Wyndham, London, in 2011, the perfect choice for a locked-in Saturday night.

Robert Delamere’s production cannily sets the antics in 1980s Gibraltar. Post Falklands war, there’s a celebratory air about the place with swaggering white-uniformed naval officers coming ashore to interact with the sun bathing locals. Claudio (Tom Bateman) has his sights set on Hero (Sarah McRae), whom he wishes to marry, but fellow officer Benedick (Tennant), a proud bachelor boy, is insistent that he will never ever go down the marriage path. He and the equally sarcastic Beatrice (Tate) already have a well established enmity towards each other, but when Benedick’s friends set up a scheme to convince him that Beatrice is secretly smitten by him, the couple’s adversarial history goes straight out of the window and something suspiciously like true love begins to bloom…

Much Ado About Nothing is a Shakespeare play I barely know – and let’s be honest, on the page his comedies can come across as a bit on the dull side. So this is something of a revelation – indeed, it has to be one of the funniest adaptations of the bard I can remember seeing. Most of the laughs are generated by the caustic interplay between Benedick and Beatrice – and even if Tate occasionally looks as though she’s about to ask Tennant if she’s bovvered, I have to admit that she handles her role with consummate skill. Tennant too, is superb, his comic timing impeccable. 

But it’s more than just a double act. The design is spectacular, with the regular use of a revolving stage showing us the action from a continually changing perspective. The scene where Benedick spies on his gossiping friends whilst becoming messily entangled with a decorating table is just inspired, and Beatrice too gets a similar scene where, caught up on a workman’s harness, she is hauled into the air, flailing helplessly around while her co-stars struggle to make themselves heard over the audience’s laughter.

I also love the masked disco, where the play’s characters, dressed as various 80s celebrities – Adam Ant, India Jones, Miss Piggy! –  dance around,, occasionally breaking off into little huddles to further develop the story. And yes, the story is a bewilderingly frivolous one, with characters playing complicated tricks on each other for no convincing reason, but it hardly matters. Two hours and forty one minutes whizz by like magic.

This is a superb slice of comic theatre that should please ardent Shakespearos and the lead couple’s sizeable fan bases alike. Interested parties will find it at digitaltheatre.com 

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney