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A downbeat yet absorbing film, The Sea, by first time director Stephen Brown, adapts John Banville’s novel about a man searching for the time before his personal tragedy
The Sea opens with a distraught, drunken man shouting into the wind on a deserted beach, the sound of his cries lost in the crashing of the waves. It is an intriguing and wrenching image, and indicative of what is to come. This is clearly not going to be a happy story. With its themes of love and loss and the siren call of the past, The Sea is a sad, downbeat yet absorbing film.
Hoping to escape the pain of the present, newly bereaved art historian Max Morden (a lugubrious Ciarán Hinds) returns to The Cedars, the boarding house by the sea that he used to frequent as a child. It is a quiet, gentle sort of place, run by the elegant Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling). It is a throwback to another time, appropriate for a man accused of living in the past.
Almost immediately Max is beset by memories of his younger self (Matthew Dillon) and the idyllic summer when he was drawn into the glamorous world of the Grace family, of Connie (Natascha McElhone) and Carlo (Rufus Sewell), their children, twins Chloe (Missy Keating) and Myles (Padhraig Parkinson) and child minder Rose (Bonnie Wright). That summer marked young Max’s first experience of love and loss, and the memories exist somewhere between daydream and ambush. We know something bad happened, but the big reveal is withheld until the end, a narrative construct that is by turns tantalising and frustrating. It is hinted at along the way, but the effect is to take the viewer out of the story, albeit momentarily. When the reveal does come, it is both shocking and perplexing. The event is presented without explanation, and is strangely unsatisfying in what is otherwise an engrossing film.
The Sea jumps back and forth in time, anchored by John Conroy’s striking cinematography. The idealised past is rendered in warm, soft tones, while the depressed present is subdued colours and hard edges, an appropriate backdrop to Max’s recollections of his last days with his departed wife Anna (a wonderfully brittle Sinéad Cusack) and his awkward confrontation with his adult daughter Clare (Ruth Bradley). She’s grieving too, and worried about him, but he is in no state to deal with her pain as well as his own. For all their differences, in time if not in space, the two strands are united by the self-centredness of both childhood and grief.
While the performances are uniformly involving, Hinds stands out with his portrayal of a man turned in on himself. Anyone who’s been through a similar experience will recognise the signs – the not knowing how to act when your loved one is dying, the resentment at being left behind. Hinds reveals complex emotions with the subtlest of expressions. As for the volatile Chloe, the object of young Max’s affection, one can’t help but feel that she is what schoolteachers of a certain age would call “a proper little madam”.
The Sea is based on the novel of the same name by John Banville, which won the Man Booker prize in 2005, narrowly beating Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Banville also wrote the screenplay, paring the story down to its essentials, and enabling first-time director Stephen Brown to fashion an intimate look at grief and memory.
The Sea unfolds slowly and the atmosphere is decidedly melancholy, meandering between the past and the present as Max tries to come to terms with the traumas in his life. He is in hiding, licking his wounds, and his reactions ring true, in a subtle, understated way. Those who have recently been bereaved may find, to its credit, that The Sea hits a little too close to home.