'The Sea', Review: 'Handsome But Damp'
Despite perfect casting and winning performances, John Banville's Booker-winning novel doesn't quite breathe independently on screen, says Tim Robey
The Telegraph, 17 April 2014
John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, a typically ruminative, linguistically playful treatise on grief, memory and old age.
It’s an odd choice for a film adaptation, even with a tight-lipped screenplay by Banville himself and a perfectly cast Ciarán Hinds as the book’s narrator, widowed art historian Max Morden.
What’s impressionistic on the page has to be re-sculpted and honed to a point on screen, but the result is that the novel’s tenderly hidden secrets become rather blatant twists. Banville straddles three timelines: Max’s childhood, which was a seemingly carefree idyll of lolling on the beach; the last months he spent at the bedside of his dying wife, Anna (a nicely bitter Sinéad Cusack); and his return to those childhood beaches, as a resident in the guesthouse of a smiling spinster called Mrs. Vavasour. This latter role is so perfectly tailored to the slightly creepy elegance of Charlotte Rampling, you're fairly sure she knows more than she’s letting on. As we shuttle between past and present, both casting and costuming further give the game away.
Shot with some verve on the coast of south east Ireland, it’s a handsome and painstaking effort, though rarely one which breathes independently as a film. Hinds is becoming a stalwart, an immensely reliable underactor, and retrieves as much as he can from a character whose inner life feels somehow left behind on the page. As Max’s 12-year-old self, smitten with the curves of Natascha McElhone as a radiant yummy mummy, Matthew Dillon makes a roguishly winning screen debut. But there’s nothing director Stephen Brown can do about Banville’s ending – a novelist’s device, rendered damply literal when it’s up there on the screen.