THE SEA C+
Great Britain Ireland (86 mi) 2013 d: Stephen Brown
An Irish film with a literary feel, using flashbacks, memories, and frequently recurring dreams intermixed with real life, often indistinguishable, creating a stream-of-conscious feel throughout, largely exploring the interior world of one specific character, art historian Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds), as he struggles to find some semblance of normalcy from the reverberations of haunting memories. Adapted by Irish writer John Banville, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, winner of the Booker Prize in 2005 for his 14th novel, not to mention the writer of several plays and a book of short stories, this is clearly a better book than a movie. Coming from a nation that rewards and supports its artists, it’s an inherently interesting story, given a terrific cast, but an insipid, dirge-like feel throughout offers few rewards, as outside of the outstanding performances, this novice director doesn’t seem to have a feel for the material. Intricately connected, and deeply complex, the film largely takes place in one man’s imagination as he ruefully recalls incidents earlier in life that leave him filled with grief and regrets, yet the film has a painting-by-numbers feel, clumsily moving from recollection to recollection, where the look of the screen remains fixed, with little distinction between time periods, failing to capture the swirling groundswell of emotions in each segment, and never fully utilizing the capabilities of cinema. Morden couldn’t be more uncomfortable in the opening segments, as his openly bitter wife (Sinéad Cusack), a well-regarded professional photographer, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, where he can’t find the words to express his sorrow, leaving the couple in an icy cool during her final days, which literally wracks his soul afterwards, haunted by his own personal shortcomings. Hinds is particularly good in expressing anguish, even suicidal thoughts, but the lackluster attempt to elevate the material into something more meaningful just never develops, remaining a particularly gloomy experience. Shot on location in Wexford County, Ireland, the author’s birthplace, it features Ballinesker Beach, an uninterrupted stretch of about 20 miles of unspoiled beaches where Spielberg filmed SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) while also used to gorgeous effect by John Crowley in Brooklyn (2015).
After the brief opener, Morden is seen being dropped off at a lavish seaside estate by his lovely daughter Clare, Ruth Bradley, last seen in Grabbers (2012), who protests his decision, thinking this is not the time for him to be alone, nonetheless he stubbornly persists. The mistress of the manor answering the door is none other than Charlotte Rampling as Miss Vavasour, who doesn’t in the least look surprised, though they haven’t seen one another in fifty years. Welcoming him to the boarding house inside, there is an instant flashback, where if you blink you’ll miss it, suggesting he is returning to the place of some unmentioned trauma. As he wanders alone along the beach, through flashbacks we discover this is a place his family came to visit in the summer when he was just ten years old, though his family never ventured into the pricey estates, remaining in the “huts,” as they were called, small chalets with no indoor plumbing. Young Max (Matthew Dillon) remains transfixed by a wealthy family he meets on the beach with two twins his age, Chloe (Missy Keating), initially seen behind dark glasses in a Lolita-like image, and her mute brother Myles (Padhraig Parkinson), yet strangely he’s initially fascinated by the sensuous, overly affectionate manner of their mother (Natascha McElhone), where male fantasies start to resemble the roving eyes of a Rohmer film, especially where it all lies upon the surface. Even more mysterious is the adolescent nature of her husband, Rufus Sewell, a clownish, overly privileged character who always seems to be performing for laughs, where the two are never without a glass of wine in their hands. What strikes our interest, however, is the disaffected behavior of the impassive nanny named Rose (Bonnie Wright), always with her nose in a book, allowing the kids to run free, yet she unmistakably bears an uncanny resemblance to Rampling. Indeed she is one and the same, just a half century earlier. As sexual curiosities play out on full display, Young Max is hooked, remaining inexplicably linked to the twins throughout the days of summer, though it’s never really clear whether Chloe even likes him or is just toying with him, as with her it’s probably the same thing, as she seems to enjoy controlling them both. Myles, on the other hand, has a devilish side, prone to striking people for no reason, often remaining off to the side brooding.
So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future as the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in a field, watching for what was to come.
While his childhood resurrects before his eyes, it’s also clear Morden is a sullen and distraught man, plainly unhappy, filled with grief and remorse, so perhaps it’s only natural that he plies his tormented soul with drink. While this seems customarily and stereotypically Irish, Max is the man for the job, as he foolishly drinks himself into a cantankerous stupor, beyond the point where he has a care in the world, yet remains subject to impulsive actions, like throwing himself into the sea. Despite the immensity in size, inside the boarding house is just one other guest, Colonel Blunden (Karl Johnson), a retired army colonel and an insufferable bore, while Miss Vavasour silently dresses herself in exotic Asian scarves, often seen stylishly smoking a cigarette from a long holder, all adding to a mysterious portrait of an aloof woman who’s either been around the world or read about it, where remarkably her personal life is a closely guarded secret. This disconnect between characters, both present and past, is a sticking point, as we don’t learn much about any of them except Max, who dominates the narration, is in nearly every shot of the film, and is a bit of a diva, as he likes to be the center of attention, even if for all the wrong reasons, yet his own critical assessment of himself is a scathing indictment of a coward. Rationalizing his sabbatical as an opportunity to write a book on French painter Pierre Bonnard, he instead commiserates in his own misery, often keeping company with the ghost of his deceased wife, reliving particularly testy conversations they had, where his behavior was anything but exemplary. Nonetheless these offer insights into his own gloomy disposition, yet throughout the entire ordeal the film spends more time unlocking precious secrets from his childhood, as if to explain his own peculiar morbidity, as his innocence was soiled that summer, though not in the way one might imagine, as there’s a strange twist at the end that might seem wickedly surprising, but it fails to generate any profound illumination, much of it diluted by the flatness of the direction that just feels overly uninspired. Somewhat reminiscent of Visconti’s voyeuristic and much more flamboyant DEATH IN VENICE (1971), where the surging musical score by Gustav Mahler elevated the visual impressionism onscreen, where time passing and the everpresent signs of death drown out any haunting illusions of beauty or desire, which are associated with the innocence of youth, yet the film was a failed attempt to capture the magic of Thomas Mann’s influential novel. In much the same way, this is a missed opportunity, remaining so overly cautious in style and convention that all potential drama has been drastically washed away.