I saw Blue Juice before I had much concept of Cornwall as a semi-independent sovereign state clinging reluctantly on to the tail end of England. But even then (what was it, about 1996? Taped off the telly and one of the only things my older brother and I could agree on to watch, anyway) I could see it was a different kind of place. There were surfers where I came from, sure. But this was surf culture. In the north, anyone who was daft enough to venture into the sea was too busy getting their circulation back and self-treating incipient frost bite to retain the energy to think up new slang and grow their hair long. Quiksilver hoodies, beach raves and flip flops as functional outdoor wear were all exotic concepts of which we could only dream.
The surfing stuff is obviously going to be the draw of this film for some people (extreme sports fans, neoprene enthusiasts), and apparently the actors all had training beforehand. But endearingly they’re pretty obviously all rubbish at it, except for Sean Pertwee’s JD who you barely see in action until the big set piece at the end when he’s obviously being doubled. There might be some token chat about ‘perfect barrels’, ‘six foot and clean’ and the like, but I sort of appreciate the film doesn’t try to cram in too many duplicated scenes of virtuosity to make their point or drag in the enthusiasts. In the end, this is not really a surf film in the same way that Riding Giants is, or that – god help us – Blue Crush tries to be.
The designated plot driver – early 30’s restlessness vs. the pull to settle down – is enough to keep everything moving forwards without interfering too much with the fun stuff. Blue Juice has the feeling of a screwball comedy: daft almost-sex scenes (sock jokes, trifle), cast of wacky side-kicks with a single characteristic (pretentious music director, chubby romantic, drug-taking fuck-up), seemingly pointless in jokes (bumpkin local radio DJs) and sudden headlong rushes to save the day and get the girl.
Goofy as it is, it makes sense when you hear the filmmakers talk about how they wanted to make something feel-good at a time when, if you went by the UK film industry’s output only, you’d be forgiven for thinking the entire nation were disillusioned miners who only stopped shooting up long enough to murder and bury their flatmates out of mild boredom. Sweetly, the actors seem to have had as good a time filming it – Sean Pertwee says one of the filming locations is his favourite place in the world, and leading lady Catherine Zeta Jones apparently graciously recalled in a later Esquire interview that the strategically placed sex scene sock (I imagine that will show up as a Sun headline any time now) was ‘a brown M&S one – quite boring’, which nugget of information is probably not quite what the readers of that magazine were looking for.
It also does look like a total one of a kind film. Cornwall must derive about two thirds of its income being used for sweeping vistas and moody cliff-top shots in BBC historical dramas, but this is the only thing I’ve seen that captures anything like the distractive clash of those huge horizons mixed with the claustrophobic, tourist heavy small town atmosphere of the place. Everyone in it looks like they really belong there – with the exception of Catherine Zeta Jones, of course, who even when forced into the clashing ditzy florals of a Joe Brown’s catalogue still looks like she should be motoring up the Grand Canal in Venice with an octogenarian millionaire on her arm.
CZJ would take a few more years to become a household name – she was still mostly known for The Darling Buds of May at that stage – but presumably the producers couldn’t believe their luck when they realised they’d accidentally landed another film star. Trainspotting came out the year before Blue Juice, but during production it would have been too soon to know what a massive hit it would be. Unfortunately, although Ewan McGregor plays a druggie in this film as well – abet of a much cuddlier kind than Renton – he’s almost unrecognisable under a straggly goatee and estuary accent and given his limited screentime, doesn’t make much of an impact.
Undeterred, the producers shamelessly featured his image – shaved for better recognition – on the DVD release, which must have been a slap in the face for Sean Pertwee, the actual leading man. I’m very fond of Sean Pertwee, son of the second Doctor Who. He’s got one of those craggy-ish faces that is basically one big crinkle, like the Game of Thrones/ Ripper Street version of Jerome Flynn with added sun-in, and a seriously good voice, which perhaps explains why he seems to do more voiceover and videogame work than acting these days. For some reason he’s very popular with makeup brands, though in person I can’t image anyone less suitable for pushing mascara. He shows up giving non-showy gravitas to a whole slew of films that probably don’t deserve it but that I love anyway – Event Horizon, Dog Soldiers, Equilibrium – that will no doubt show up on this blog one day, and remains one of those people I’ll always watch if he’s on.
OK, he also looks excellent with his shirt off. I never claimed this was one of those classy film blogs.
There’s some nice, if mild, playing around with character archetypes – Catherine Zeta Jones’s Chloe is fiery, dominant and a dab hand with a power tool while JD is an apron wearing culinary enthusiast of a beta male masquerading as an alpha surfing guru, mirroring most of the male characters who are all shown as various shades of meek and sheepish in the face of their more confident, long-suffering women.
There’s some dodgy stuff in here too, of course – Jenny Argutter makes a baffling appearance as an ex-leading lady of some made up historical TV show for one of the characters to have a crush on, and unfortunate real-world timing means that the brief and regrettable popularity of techno features as a side-plot. But mostly the odd stuff is pleasantly weird and satisfying – Jenny Argutter’s crush separately gets accidentally pilled up and reappears at a rave spray painted entirely silver as the titular surfer, a local blowhole is pressed into use as a mystical truth-telling device – and feel oddly grounded in the mildly eccentric, isolated community who mostly seem to be happy kicking back without very much to do or any other place to go.
However fluffy things get, there’s always a faint dark hint of the real world that creeps in around the edges of the film – the distrust of incomers to small towns, the avoidance of impending adulthood – ‘It’s so easy when you’re 20 and you think everything will be all right’, says one character wistfully. The local radio DJs of ‘Smuggler FM’ might spend a lot of their time discussing folk remedies to a backing track of shanty based jingles, but they also bemoan the fact that ‘all these young people seem to want to leave in the winter.’ There’s some melancholy shots of abandoned copper mines and sullen countryside and a general feeling that even if the surfer dudes were looking to become more upwardly mobile, they’d have to move away to do it. But even the believably damp colour palette of mossy greens and greys never takes away from the fact that this is a sunny film, at heart.
It’s affectionate toward the place without being patronising and no-one takes themselves too seriously, with the exception of the pretentious DJ who is sorted out by the love of a good techno-hating woman. In the end everyone is neatly sorted into their boxes with enough switcheroo-ing to make you feel it wasn’t a total foregone conclusion. This is also probably the only film where the satisfaction of the happy ever after is demonstrated by a previously non-magical character inexplicably acquiring the ability to levitate. But hey, a good happy ending makes me feel pretty light-hearted too.