EIFF 2013: ‘The Sea’ Is a Well-acted But Lethargic Exploration of Memory

Sight On Sound, 24 June 2013
By Rob Dickie
Thanks Laila

Adapted by John Banville from his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, 'The Sea' is a reflective but laboured character study, set in an Irish seaside town. After losing his wife to cancer, Max (Ciarán Hinds), an alcoholic art history dilettante, moves back to the place where he and his family used to spend their summer holidays, revisiting the scene of a childhood trauma in an attempt to forget his current plight. His memories are shown in flashback, depicting the summer leading up the event, when Max became friends with an eccentric, wealthy family who were renting a house in the town.

Incorporating three different timelines, the film works through narrative slippage, as memories from the past frequently intrude on the present. Director Stephen Brown handles this by using contrasting colour palettes to make clear distinctions between the childhood and adult scenes. The faded, shadowy tones of the present are gorgeous, dominated by deep blues, but the flashbacks are washed over with a sickly, golden hue. Max remembers the holiday because of his burgeoning sexual awareness and the sadness that haunts him to the present day, but the apparent seriousness of these events is undermined by giving them the superficial look of an old-fashioned postcard.

Max also has flashbacks to the months leading up to his wife’s (Sinéad Cusack) death, through which we discover they had a prickly relationship, soured by infidelity. Their bitterness towards each other is never fully explained, which means it is difficult to empathise with Max’s sense of loss and makes these scenes agonising. Hinds is the best thing about the film, wringing what emotion he can out of a limited script, but his character is held back by frequent bouts of mundane drunkenness.

There are some powerful, evocative moments, like the opening scene in which Max walks unsteadily out to sea before being engulfed by dark, relentless waves. Some of the leaps in time also come off superbly, such as when a shot of a Bonnard painting transitions to one of Max’s wife lying in the bath. However, more often than not, The Sea is too predictable and the continual flashbacks quickly become grating.

It succeeds in creating the necessary intrigue but fails badly when it comes to the payoff. Charlotte Rampling’s character, the decorous guest house owner, exemplifies this weakness; she initially has a lot of potential but rapidly fades into the background, her development sidelined in favour of the past. You can see what Brown and Banville are attempting here, building the story around the unchanging sea, which invokes memory and forces slippage between different periods of time. Unfortunately, the pace is lethargic, there are no surprising revelations and the ending is horribly anticlimactic, meaning the strong performances and flashes of visual flair go to waste.

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