Dead Calm (1989) – Phillip Noyce


Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane take us on a high seas thrill ride filled with suspense in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm, the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book.

Clocking in at a tightly paced 93 minutes, this thriller captivates with a well-scripted story, and strong performances. And from the off, the film is filled with an oppressive sense of tension, as Graeme Revell’s score and Noyce’s choice of angles and framing reveals very quickly that a tragedy has struck John (Neill) and Rae (Kidman) Ingram, necessitating what they planned on being a relaxing sail on their yacht.

As the couple try to heal themselves, John watching over Rae, and her medication, a wrinkle arrives in the form of Hughie (Zane), a survivor of a sinking schooner. John doesn’t believe Hughie’s story and things spiral from there into a cat-and-mouse game that could see both Rae and John dead.

Confined to the small, but comfortable yacht, in the middle of a seemingly empty ocean, tensions, and conflicts have an added claustrophobic feel as Hughie terrorises. Noyce and his crew do a masterful job of keeping the viewer’s nerves on end as he keeps most of his cast in close-ups and medium shots, putting us right in the middle of the problems.


The film is incredibly tense, especially once John is separated from Rae, left behind by Hughie. She must match her wits to his, and out think, and outmanoeuvre him, giving John a chance to catch up to them, but she’ll have to sacrifice much to gain the upper hand, and even if she gets it, can she hold out long enough for John to arrive?

A wonderfully tense movie, and this is the Nicole Kidman I grew to adore, the curls, and the smile, she’s stunning in this film, and her strength of character as she is put in a situation she never imagined is played with a quiet power.

Sam Neill has long been a favourite of mine, and I love when I see his name in a film, there’s an everyman quality about him that makes me think, hey, that could be me, and what would I do in that situation?

Zane, much like Kidman and Neill, is perfectly cast, he’s creepy, occasionally charming, threatening, and seemingly completely off his rocker.

I remember the first time I saw this one, bringing it home from a video store while I was in university in Nova Scotia, and being wowed by the performances, the pacing, and the setting. I was giving myself a crash course in film at the time, and had no idea that a film of this nature could be so captivating. I was learning so much, and I, for one, am delighted to count this as one of the films of my cinematic education.



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