'The Sea': Toronto Review
Despite perfect casting and winning performances, John Banville's Booker-winning novel doesn't quite breathe independently on screen, says Tim Robey

Hollywood Reporter, 13 September 2013
By Tim Robey

Sunlight glistening off pounding waves, like a painting by Pierre Bonnard – this is the romantic mood-setter of Stephen Brown’s artfully shot and acted yet totally uninvolving directing debut, 'The Sea'. Adapted for the screen by Irish author John Banville from his own novel, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, 'The Sea' suffers from too little action and too much atmosphere. Despite its careful control of tone and a raging central performance by Ciaran Hinds, which is actually sufficient reason to see the film, this story of a man who plunges into childhood memories in the aftermath of his wife’s death remains admirable but wingless. After the obvious places -- Edinburgh, Galway, Toronto – it should rather quickly wend its way to domestic release and ancillary screens.

Echoing the book’s back-and-forth temporal structure, Banville’s screenplay offers privileged access to the memories of Max Morden (Hinds), a recent widower who is dealing badly with the loss of his wife Anna (Sinead Cusack). Against the wishes of his concerned adult daughter, he packs up for a stay of indeterminate length at the seaside boarding house of Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) with the excuse of writing a book on Bonnard’s paintings. It's a house he knew well as a boy, when his unmoneyed parents rented a beach shack down the road. Perhaps the landlady knows this. In any case, she seems sympathetic to her roomer and thoughtfully puts him up in “the children’s room” with all the original furniture.

Cusack plays his wife Anna, a successful photographer who resents and mocks the illness that will shortly kill her. Wholly wrapped up in herself and her approaching death, she has no time to reassure her shocked and disoriented husband. In this she’s very similar to someone else he once knew, Chloe, the daughter of a rich family he met when he was 12 years old (Matthew Dillon) and vacationing at the seashore.

From his family’s cramped digs, he admiringly eyes the big house where Chloe lives with her mute brother and her flamboyant father (Rufus Sewell) and mother (McElhone), whose beauty and gaiety hold him in thrall. Hard-drinking, careless, and cruising for tragedy, they have a Gatsby-ish air about them that totally fascinates little Max. And the timing is right: they adopt him as a summer playmate for the kids during the magical summer of his sexual awakening.

It’s the kind of film that reverberates with all kinds of literary and film echoes as it charts its erratic course from coming-of-ager to mystery, from family drama to individual tragedy. There’s a bit of a Henry James ghost story behind the rich kids’ close-lipped governess, Rose. She keeps an eye on Chloe and her silent brother but doesn’t look too closely into their little secrets. Could Miss Vavasour’s other boarder, a retired general, have been an army officer in Belfast? And what about the bewitching landlady herself, artistically dressed in Oriental gowns and eccentric headgear?

All these tales from the past are jumbled together in Max’s memories as he tramps down the beach pounded by those dramatic dappled waves under a brooding sky, or drinks himself punch drunk at the pub down the road. With his look of bewildered surprise, Hinds can deliver a large register of feelings, as he flees sadness by returning to the scene of an old trauma. The rapidly intercut scenes don’t aid empathy with his plight, however, and there comes a point when one wishes Brown and Banville had chosen to tell the whole thing chronologically.

In supporting roles, a raw-edged and particularly effective Sinead Cusack, a mysterious Charlotte Rampling and a glowing, evanescent Natascha McElhone give different layers of depth to the story.

John Conroy’s dreamlike cinematography really does evoke Bonnard with a mood of natural wonder. Whether the camera is fixed or handheld, it creates the atmosphere of drama against which human passions seem somehow paltry. Another major player here is Andrew Hewitt’s watchful and tentative modern score, promising a chilly revelation.

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