The Sea is the directorial debut of Stephen Brown and an adaptation of John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize winning novel of the same name – Banville also writes the script. Having not read the book, it is difficult to assess the film since it is so closely tied to another work. It is also difficult to work out whether to praise (and blame) Banville’s script – presumably close to the book – or Brown’s direction.
Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds) is recently widowed – his wife Anna (Sinéad Cusack) having succumbed to cancer. Apparently trying to escape recent bad memories by revisiting the site of older bad memories, Max travels to a lonely coastal guesthouse run by Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling). As soon as he gets there, he is flooded with memories from his childhood, ones that fill him with guilt concerning both the long ago and the more recent past. In flashback, the film details the events of a summer of the 1950s in which a young Max (played by Matthew Dillon) falls in with an eccentric English couple, Connie and Carlo Grace (Natascha McElhone and Rufus Sewell) and their strange children Chloe and Myles (Missy Keating and Padhraig Parkinson).
The Sea is about memories, how they both change and stay the same and how they affect one’s everyday life. The beginning of the film has several Proustian moments in which memories suddenly impact on the present. Max lingers on the sound of a creaking gate as it palpably brings back memories of his past. Immediately after, a revisited hallway suddenly and shockingly brings back a traumatic memory that the film does not fully explain until towards the end, allowing it to haunt the rest of the film. The film fairly quickly splits into three storylines – Max in the present dealing with the past, the illness and death of Anna as he helplessly watches and the 1950s storyline. For a film under ninety minutes, it is ambitious and Brown is a capable enough filmmaker to pull it off well, but it does mean that The Sea is a wandering, cluttered film. Though it is clear that the film will reveal all when it wants to, it leaves you in the dark long enough for its later explanations to seem both obvious and contrived.
Brown is very good at transitions. Where one director will merely cut between different times – usually with the help of a sound bridge to help the audience along – Brown allows the past to suddenly appear within the present in a way that is both evocative and visually arresting. For instance, after a day’s drinking, Morden returns to his room in Miss Vavasour’s guesthouse in which we see Anna lying on her death bed. Memories, then, are not about juxtaposition, they are not separated from the past. They are living things that can effect the present, intrude on it. This is borne out with equal clarity if not equal formal experimentation in a scene in which Morden realizes that a fellow guest is a retired British soldier who may or may not have been stationed in Belfast. Like Northern Ireland, memories are inescapable for Morden; they are almost dangerous in the way that they can take over. Hinds is good as a man trapped by the things inside his own head and the choice by the filmmakers to eschew explanatory voiceover is a brave but welcome one.
As successful then as The Sea is as a film about intrusive memory, it remains deeply flawed in other ways. As a faithful adaptation of a book, it is too closely tied to elements that may work in the novel but which do not necessarily work in film. It tries too hard to differentiate between the past and the present with colour – the present grey and the past bright and vibrant. And while it makes sense that Max Morden ought to be a little unknowable, it does not make sense that every other character should have such underwritten roles. The Grace family is represented quickly as a family of eccentrics and the actors have little to do but play eccentric in capital letters – particularly Sewell who offers a bi-polar performance at odds with the rest of the film.
Instead of the film having its own significance independent of the book, certain scenes feel like vague gestures towards more meaningful moments in the book. Meanwhile, other scenes and storylines feel rushed and the ending, despite being clearly signposted, occurs with little context. Not unlike Julian Barnes’ novel of memory, ‘The Sense of An Ending’, the story here is of damaging memories and the form is one of slow revelation, but both test the reader/viewer’s sense of disbelief – while things get more and more emotionally charged they also get more and more outrageous. Here, a series of revelations become increasingly unlikely until a final revelation about who Miss Vavasour is, like the ending in general, flubbed.
The Sea is an interesting film about memory and it does display a certain willingness to experiment and take risks on the part of director Stephen Brown, so much so that one wonders if he won’t do much better with a script not based on a book. The film is ultimately decent – in terms of direction, editing and in its performances, particularly Hinds, Cusack, Dillon and Keating – but the fact that it is closely based on a book (and the fact that the author wrote the script) is a millstone around its neck. It seems as if The Sea could have been an adventurous and fascinating film if it hadn’t been so closely tied to a previous work.