Cinema Review: 'The Sea'
Film Ireland, 17 April 2014
DIR: Stephen Brown • WRI: John Banville • PRO: David Collins, Michael Robinson, Luc Roeg • DOP: John Conroy • ED: Stephen O’Connell • MUS: Andrew Hewitt • DES: Derek Wallace • CAST: Bonnie Wright, Ciarán Hinds, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell
Max Morden, grieving the loss of his wife Anna, returns to an Irish seaside village where he spent summers as a child. He struggles to finish a book about the painter Pierre Bonnard, but the village provokes memories of the summer when he met the Grace family, the children Myles and Chloe, their parents Connie and Carlo, and Rose, the children’s young governess. Anna’s slow death from cancer continues to haunt Max.
John Banville adapts his 2005 Man Booker prizewinning novel. Some of the book’s more literate pleasures, such as Banville’s playful punning and concern with the meaning of words, gives the dialogue a pretentious feel, Anna’s musings on the word “patient” and the recurrence of “stranded” being two obvious examples. While the screen provides an excellent medium for flitting back and forth through time, Banville’s adaptation fails to capture the uncertainty and unreliability of Max’s meditations that pervade the book. The filmmakers try to capture something like this with characters speaking their lines off-screen while their on-screen mouths don’t move, presumably reflecting that it’s Max’s memory we’re seeing and hearing. It’s a challenging task to bring such fiction to the screen; this adaptation has lost the structural complexity of its source but remains faithful to its emotional core.
A notable cast brings Banville’s fascinating characters to life. Ciarán Hinds, with his craggy face, impresses as the dilettante, worn by his experiences and troubled by his memories. Charlotte Rampling gives Miss Vavasour appropriate mysteriousness, while Sinéad Cusack ably takes some of the more memorable lines as the dying Anna. Rufus Swell’s swaggering turn as Carlo Grace brings an enjoyable roguery, enlivening the film’s grim mood. Unfortunately, the younger cast lacks experience and conviction to give meaning to the subtext of their scenes.
The title, of course, means there are frequent shots to the beautiful briny, and water recurs as a motif, as in Anna’s bath and bleak rain on a window. DOP John Conroy’s lighting patterns give Max’s childhood memories a warmer glow than the dark blue and grey hues of scenes set in the present. The camera moves frequently when static shots or long takes might have given the viewer time and space to meditate and interpret such Max’s memories, as we might do when trying to assimilate Max’s ruminations in the book.
At one point, Max chides his daughter for being of the generation who believe that “everything’s explained, everything’s accounted for”. References to Pierre Bonnard, the painter, make more sense if you know that his later works reflected his desolation following the death of his wife. The character Blunden has an uncertain past. He says he’s retired from the army but he have been active in Belfast. Anna’s past relationship with Serge troubles Max. The young Rose’s relationship with Connie Grace plays out on the sidelines in much the same way as many different possibilities and strands running through the film emerge and recede, just like water washing up on the seashore. It’s difficult to make a success out of the ephemeral in a medium that makes things visible, but director Stephen Brown, in his feature-length debut, makes an adequate, if not entirely successful, attempt.