The Sea, 2013.
Directed by Stephen Brown.
Starring Ciarán Hinds, Bonnie Wright, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Dillon, Sinéad Cusack, Missy Keating and Charlotte Rampling.
The story of a man who returns to the sea where he spent his childhood summers in search of peace following the death of his wife.
Ciaran Hinds is a dangerous actor. The 61-year-old Belfast native will quietly disappear into all the bit-parts that come his way, because he’s generous support, and because he never showboats or upstages his fellow performers. But give Hinds a lead and he’ll take charge of the film, no matter how insubstantial the material. That’s why he’s one of Ireland’s best living actors: with Hinds in the lead, a poor film’s flaws can be hidden, or even partially forgiven. And so it goes with The Sea – to an extent – a confused coming-of-age drama/tiresome middle-aged lament featuring a veritable masterclass from Hinds.
Following the passing of his wife, Max (Hinds) comes to stay in a Ballyless seaside hotel, once owned by a wealthy English family and frequently visited by a young Max, as played by Matthew Dillon in flashback. None of the present day thread is too interesting, and in particular flashbacks to Max’s conversations with his dying wife (Sinéad Cusack) feel unnecessary and manipulative, but there is some interest to be found in what the young Max’s relationship with the well-off Grace family will develop into. We’re shown early on a later scene of Grace matriarch Connie (Natascha McElhone) screaming and being comforted by her husband Carlo (Rufus Sewell), but why? What will bring them that pain?
The questions will eventually be answered; the answers disappoint. What nuance there must’ve been in John Banville’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel doesn’t translate to the film, thanks to some stagey performances and a blunt visual style from workmanlike director Stephen Brown (blue-grey filter for present day sad times, hazy lensing and maximum sunlight for the rose-tinted past), but largely it’s thanks to the script, adapted in a dry, all-too-literary manner by Banville from his own novel. Brown wants to get across the uneasy psychological state of Max, both young and old, but he can’t – it’s not in his skillset to handle such complexity, and he’s quite clearly not aided by the rote screenplay.
We fail to get a good grasp on the awkward, burgeoning romantic relationship between young Max and Connie’s daughter, Chloe (Missy Keating), nor what Chloe and brother Myles’ Dreamers-esque weird twin connection is all about, why Myles is mute, where the older Max’s paranoia towards wife Anna stems from, or even why Max has a beard at the beginning of the film that he in the next scene has shaved off; the pointlessness of this apparently significant development, coupled with the film’s dead-serious tone, might even prompt dangerous memories of The Room. Then comes the big finale, and what intrigue Brown has conjured up is dashed, in a climax that comes out of leftfield and has all the benefit of zero foreshadowing.
There are so many things in The Sea that require further explanation, which the book no doubt provides, but which we as viewers are denied. Along with much subtlety: there’s a final character ‘twist’ you’ll see coming a mile off, but which Brown and Banville assume you won’t figure out until the reveal. You also get a difficult father-daughter relationship between Max and Ruth Bradley’s Claire, and the requisite “I’m damaged so I’m now a raging alcoholic” shorthand reserved for Max, so often lazily inserted into this sort of underdeveloped drama. Visually the film makes little effort; one impressionistic sequence has the young Max laying on a golden beach as the waves recede in reverse, but it’s a rare moment of experimentation to pierce the otherwise plodding narrative and TV aesthetics.
Guiding the film by the hand from beginning to end, though, there’s a commanding Hinds, finding depth in himself and in the downright baffling material. He’s too kind to the film, really, as are Charlotte Rampling (playing the hotel’s house-maid) and the forever-under-utilised Rufus Sewell – why such intelligent actors signed on is uncertain, because there’s not much going on upstairs with this one. It’s a jumble of storylines, few of which are satisfyingly resolved, with author Banville putting his own words into script form and evidently failing to realise how different one medium is from the other. What brought him plaudits on the page won’t be bringing him praise on the screen. Hinds, meanwhile, deserves all the praise he can get for elevating this mess just beyond total failure.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.