Irish Times, 18 April 2014
In recent years, John Banville has turned to writing crime fiction of a noirish hue. Somewhat surprisingly, this efficient, elegant adaptation of his Booker Prize-winning 2005 novel makes some unintended gestures towards other corners of the thriller genre.
Concerning itself with an art historian who returns to the town where he spent much of his childhood, The Sea initially comes across like one of those Barbara Vine stories that constantly hint at some “awful event” in the distant past. The film doesn’t quite deliver on that accidental promise (why should it?), but the acting is of such a high calibre and the emotions so raw that the film proves hard to resist.
Max (Ciaran Hinds) arrives at The Cedars, a grand boarding house and begins coiled banter with the elegant landlady (Charlotte Rampling). The triple-pronged story then moves from the assumed present to Max’s last days with his recently deceased wife (Sinéad Cusack) and back further to childhood times spent with the eccentric Grace family. Nice Connie Grace (Natascha McElhone) and mildly crazy Carlos (Rufus Sewell) welcome the young Max into their family as a companion for their own two children. Some sort of sexual awakening seems inevitable before the “awful event” takes place.
Everybody in 'The Sea' is terrific. Hinds is never better when brooding over barely contained traumas, and his looming presence gives the film impressive weight. McElhone and Sewell capture an ancient class of glamour that didn’t survive the 1970s. Cusack’s verbal jousts with Hinds suggest further unexpressed betrayals.
All those positives noted, 'The Sea', as scripted by the author, never feels like anything other than a literary adaptation. John Conroy’s cinematography hints at the impressionistic aesthetic of Pierre Bonnard – of whom Max is preparing a study – but we are always striving for inner worlds that, expressed fully on the page, remain stubbornly inaccessible to the camera. A work of quality nonetheless.
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