I chuckled at the reviewer who complained that there is not enough “action” in this film. What was he expecting, a car chase? Perhaps one of Charlotte Rampling’s famous nude scenes? Rampling remains tastefully (and beautifully) costumed for the duration of The Sea, but as a matter of fact, there is a fight scene.
After his wife’s death, a widower (Ciarán Hinds) withdraws to a house by the sea to wallow in misery, memory and generous lashings of booze. Hinds said of The Sea: It’s sort of a ruminative film. It’s a delicate film. I feel it will appeal to a certain audience who are in no hurry and want to get involved in the storytelling. No doubt that’s just fine with John Banville, who scripted the story from his own novel (see my review here). Banville is noted for adhering to his artistic aesthetic in defiant disregard of commercial considerations.
Banville and director Stephen Brown faced the challenge of adapting a book that depends for much of its impact on Banville’s trademark prose poetry, and on a philosopher’s cornucopia of abstract ideas: time, memory, identity, consciousness.
The book’s structure is a layered one, with narrator Max Morden broodingly drifting between three time periods. He recalls his late wife’s illness, and further in the past, a boyhood summer spent with the Graces, a charismatic, affluent family vacationing at the beach.
With this type of material, there are two possible approaches. One is to have a narrator do a voiceover and/or let the characters engage in lengthy conversations about Life, the Universe and Everything. This would have directly signaled the philosophical themes in the book and allowed us privileged access to the mind of Max, whose stream of consciousness includes the dodgy, the abstruse, and the amusing. But it would have resulted in a much less aesthetically satisfying film. Instead, Banville wisely avoided the temptation to try to translate his distinctive verbal style to the screen, stripping the dialogue down to a minimum, and relying on interwoven flashbacks. Much is suggested rather than spoken, and the impact comes visually, during those “long silences” of which some reviewers have complained.
The result is a moving study of grief, but take note that one of Banville’s favorite sayings is “Sentimentality is the death of art.” The undercurrent here is that although Max’s sorrow is real, he is an appallingly self-centered curmudgeon who behaves outrageously. He’s anything but a noble sufferer. This fact seems to have flown over the heads of viewers who found the film “lugubrious” or “melodramatic.” Melodrama is defined by stereotyped characters and sentimental appeals to the emotions. Watching Max fall apart in an ecstasy of navel-gazing, bittersweet memories and drunken self-pity, I careened back and forth between empathy and exasperation. “Lugubrious” is a word that Banville would enjoy using. It means “mournful,” and, to be fair, that is an accurate description of the film. But always beneath the surface there is a countercurrent, a continuous pulling away from Max’s grief to a ruthless examination of other aspects of his personality.
I mentioned that Max shows an unwarranted degree of selfishness. Exhibit One is the scene where his daughter Claire (Ruth Bradley) comes to visit him at the Cedars. Walking along the chilly beach, they stop at the Golf Hotel and enter a glass-walled conservatory.
At first they share an almost lighthearted moment, as Max ruefully (and untruthfully) claims he’s off the booze, while Claire suggests that he look up Carlo Grace on the internet.
Max: That’s the problem with your generation. You think you can just push a button and everything’s explained, accounted for.
Claire: I looked you up.
Max: Did you? And what did you find?
Claire: Not much.
Max seems to accept with equanimity the news that he has underwhelmed the World Wide Web. But as the tea is served, a fresh wave of grief washes over him, and his expression deadens. Then he delivers himself of the following ponderous speech, which closely resembles his narrative voice in the book:
This wasn’t supposed to happen to us, you know, your mother and me. Misfortune, sickness, early death. That kind of thing only happens to the good folk, the humble ones, the salt of the earth. Not to Anna. Not to me. In the midst of the grand progress that was our lives together, a ruffian stepped out of the crowd, casual as you like, and handed your poor mother the papers of impeachment.
This bit of pomposity sticks out from the rest of the dialogue, as if pointing to the folly that would have ensued had Max been as wordy as he is in the novel. (The speech is actually toned down from the book, where it is not spoken to Claire, but embedded in Max’s private thoughts. To give you an idea, Max uses the archaic term “losel” in place of “ruffian.”) Upon hearing her father’s words, the screen Claire loses her smile, heaves a sigh, then sits back in defeat. He is so enfolded in the cozy Iron Maiden of his pain that he cannot spare even the tiniest thought for what she herself has experienced. In the book, this is made explicit. You’re not the only one who is suffering, says Claire in tears. After a few moments of cogitation, Max replies, That depends on what you mean by suffering.
Yet in spite of his cavalier treatment of Claire, Max’s life is very much defined by his close relationships with women (more on this below). He grumpily but affectionately refers to Claire as his “parole officer.” Like many another Banville hero, he regards other males with suspicion and reserve. He has little time for Alfred Blunden (a perfectly-cast Karl Johnson), a lonely Colonel who is the only other guest at the Cedars.
Alfred is friendly, but Max wants nothing to do with him. Even the information that Alfred’s own wife died three years before, and that he too has a daughter, strikes Max as unwelcome and irrelevant. Sitting by the fireside one evening, he probes the Colonel’s past with slyly persistent questioning, all but forcing him to the humiliating admission that, although an Irishman, he served the British in Belfast.
The genius loci of The Cedars is Miss Vavasour (the brilliant Charlotte Rampling), whose name means a “vassal” or “tenant” (Banville is fond of “speaking” names). From the start, there is a mysterious connection between her and Max, one that is made explicit only in the closing moments. Rampling, now a luminous 68, endows Miss Vavasour with the unhurried serenity of a Shaolin monk.
Her wardrobe is fittingly made up of flowing Asian silks and trailing Grecian headbands which call to mind the poetess Sappho. After Max unpacks, he walks downstairs, on his way to the beach, and sees Miss Vavasour framed in the doorway to the living room, contemplatively inhaling from a cigarette in a long, elegant holder. Miss Vavasour comes with The Cedars, and the house itself, once upon a time the summer residence of the Grace family, is one of the characters in the drama, each of its rooms able to evoke in Max a vivid memory.
Max is a self-described dilettante, a man whose life’s work seems to be a book on the French painter Bonnard, a work he is destined never to finish. Bonnard was fond of painting his lifelong partner Marthe nude in the bathtub— always with a slender, youthful body.
In the film, a picture of one of these paintings triggers Max’s memory of Anna lying for hours in the tub, something she did only after contracting cancer. It’s a chilling reversal of Bonnard’s work, where the tub paintings are life-affirming and erotic.
In fact, Max’s interest in Bonnard forms a fascinating contrast to his morose personality. For much of his life— not just since his wife’s death— he has been eating his own heart out as well as growling and snapping at others. Hence the name “Morden,” which echoes the Latin word for “biting.” In the book, Max confesses, The greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit it, for cosiness… to be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there… Bonnard’s colorful paintings, so evocative of the cozy comforts of the home, the table, and the bed, are windows into Max’s deepest desires.
All this helps to explain why Max becomes almost infantile after losing his wife. The scenes between Max and Anna (Sinéad Cusack) are the best in the film. In one of the early scenes, Anna receives the terrible news (“Well, doctor, is it the death sentence? Or do I get life?”).
Afterward, she sits at the kitchen table as Max pours himself a drink. He is clearly at a loss for words or any way to comfort her.
Finally he says, If I could… Anna looks up at him, unimpressed. Yeah, what would you do? Unable to answer, he drains his glass instead, as she turns away with a bitter, dismissive smile.
To me, this exchange suggested the Greek myth of Alcestis, a woman who loved her husband so much that she willingly died in his place. Max wants to assure Anna that he would take her place if he could, but it isn’t true and they both know it. (Skeptics: see Banville’s Athena and The Infinities, both of which are saturated in Greek mythology. The Sea too is preoccupied with the lost world of the Greek gods, but only once in the film does this theme become explicit.)
Director Brown artfully weaves together the past and the present, sometimes blurring the distinction. We see the trigger for each flashback (the kitchen, a painting, the rain through a window, an old shop), and there are also occasional visual correspondences when Max emerges from his memories. The film is full of eerie echoes between one time and another. My favorite is the beach scene where Connie Grace asks her husband Carlo whether the wine is corked. He replies, Everything tastes a little sour at the seaside. Even you, my darling. Later, Max brings his dying wife a glass of red wine as she lies in the tub. She sips it and makes a face. It’s corked! Outside the door, he gives it a tentative sniff, then drains the glass. It’s a very good metaphor for his marriage…
My favorite scene between Anna and Max takes place in his room at the Cedars, when he drunkenly hallucinates her presence, summoning up memories of Anna in her hospital bed. This brilliant scene is absent from the novel.
Anna: This can’t go on, Max.
Max: What can’t go on?
Anna: You know, this, the drinking.
Max: I can’t. That’s what can’t go on, maybe. I don’t know what to do and that’s the God’s truth. (piteously) You’ve left me stranded in this bloody place, stranded. Set upon. (pauses) I suppose I could drown myself.
Anna: But you won’t.
Max: Too much of a coward, you mean. I suppose you’re right… (looks blearily out the window) Glorious weather, glorious fucking weather.
Anna (losing interest in him): It’s a funny word isn’t it? Patient. I’m a patient, I suppose. I certainly don’t feel patient. Far from it. It’s taking so long!
In a conversation with his landlady Miss Vavasour, Max had mentioned that his wife always asked him whether he was happy. Now the hallucinatory Anna brings up the dreaded subject yet again:
Anna: Tell me honestly, have you been happy?
Max: Of course.
Anna: No, tell me!
Max: (unconvincingly) I am telling you. Happy beyond words, my darling.
Anna: (who has disappeared as the hallucination fades) You wouldn’t lie to me?
Max: (now that she’s gone) Of course I would. (he laughs bitterly, half sobbing)
This is the paradox of Max and Anna’s marriage: even though it was not particularly happy (We rubbed along, Max tells Miss Vavasour), the loss of his wife still utterly devastates him. It is as though Max needed Anna in order to keep on being himself. She was yin to his yang, and one could not exist without the other, or at least, he could not exist without her. With Anna gone, Max’s identity is once again set adrift (In the book, we learn that as a boy he went by a different, unknown name, and at some point decided to change it). Unmoored, he floats helplessly back in time to the women who first provided him with the ability to fashion his identity: Connie and Chloe Grace.
The flashbacks to Max’s boyhood are filmed in a roseate, halcyon glow, which sometimes seems oversaturated (Anna’s flashback scenes, on the other hand, are shot in a deep blue which suits very well). The one advantage of the golden light is the way it sets off the extraordinary beauty of Connie Grace (Natasha McElhone), the woman who first awakens young Max’s sexual interest.
To judge from his books, Banville himself seems to harbor a Robert Crumb-like erotic interest in large, statuesque women, and in the novel, Mrs. Grace is a bosomy, ample goddess. Ms. McElhone by contrast is slim, lithe and muscular, and the contemporary viewer finds it a foregone conclusion that the 12-year old boy (Matthew Dillon) will conceive a passion for her. At one point, a fourth-level flashback is interwoven in the story, so that young Max dreams of embracing Mrs. Grace’s beautiful, drowned body on the beach, and wakes up in tears.
More complicated is his relationship with Chloe Grace (Missy Keating), one half of a pair of fey twins. Her brother is Myles (Padhraig Parkinson), a moody, speechless child who is never far from her side. In the book, Max is initially drawn to Mrs. Grace, but at a certain point his interest shifts toward Chloe, with whom he falls passionately in love. If there is a flaw in this beautiful film’s evocation of the book, it is the failure to successfully show how deeply Max was attached to the imperious, elusive Chloe, Max’s counterpart to Poe’s Annabel Lee.
We first see Chloe in sunglasses, with the sun behind her, as she descends a sand dune. I have no doubt that the sunglasses, absent from the book, are Stephen Brown’s salute to Banville’s love for Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita. In that book, Humbert Humbert first catches sight of Lolita Haze as my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. Stanley Kubrick too, in his 1963 film, gave Humbert his first sight of Lolita in sunglasses.
Chloe is still very much a little girl, which may explain the challenge of getting the viewer to see in her the erotic potential that mesmerized young Max. While the children are swimming in the ocean, she urinates in the water, then orders Max to swim between her legs. Afterward, she mockingly claims that he is “disgusting.” She veers between extreme aloofness, seeming indifference, and sudden bursts of physical passion. At one point, while Myles is busy bullying a small “townie” who is trying to change his bathing suit beneath a towel, Chloe grabs Max and kisses him so hard that the mashing of lips against teeth draws blood.
In the climactic scene, which takes place in a tiny fishing hut, Max runs his hand up Chloe’s bare thigh while she urgently kisses him, even as she holds hands with Myles, who is sitting sightlessly on the other side of the bench.
Suddenly, the Grace children’s governess Rose (Bonnie Wright) opens the door and exclaims in surprise. The scene is reminiscent of young Humbert’s final encounter with his first love Annabel Leigh:
There, in the violet shadow of some red rocks forming a kind of cave, [we] had a brief session of avid caresses, with somebody’s lost pair of sunglasses for only witness. I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.
I trust you noticed the sunglasses. In any case, the film does not fully explore the relationship between Max and Chloe, but instead shows how the highly-charged sexuality of the Grace ménage brought about Max’s sexual awakening, and hence his adult personality. There is the louche Carlo Grace (well-played by Rufus Sewell), who slyly makes Max complicit in his philandering with a shopgirl.
There is Connie Grace, who may or may not be aware of the passionate feelings both Max and her child-minder Rose harbor towards her. And there is the intimate bond between Chloe and her twin brother, which seems closely and creepily tied to Chloe’s sexuality. All of these erotic energies appear to be leading up to an explosively shocking ending, but when it arrives, it seems anticlimactic. The same is true of the book, and I cannot help but feel that this was by design. The point we draw from the film is not that Max was forever scarred by a tragedy, although tragedy there was. The point is that the summer on the beach with the Graces was a watershed for him, just as Anna’s illness and death was a turning point. Chloe and Anna were his two polestars, and both have gone, leaving him rudderless at sea.
A final note on the music. The score by Andrew Hewitt usually works well, but the violin solos by Hilary Hahn are intrusively shrill and stark. They lend the film an unfortunately pretentious tone. I would have preferred something more nostalgically Proustian, like Kinderszenen (mentioned in the novel) or gently ironic. In fact, I would have been happy with an instrumental version of La Mer played over the credits.
For Ciarán Hinds fans only. If you keep reading, don’t blame me!
Although all the actors are good (especially Rampling and Cusack), the task of carrying this film falls on the broad and capable shoulders of Ciarán Hinds.
He is undergoing something of a career renaissance these days. Not that his career needed to be born again, but at age 61 he’s working more than ever before, and in higher-profile projects. As a fan, I have been anticipating for months the opportunity to enjoy him in a lead role onscreen (he usually plays character parts). And what a role it is. Together with Munich, The Eclipse, and Hostages, this ranks as one of his best screen performances. Even critics who hated this film recognized the high quality of his work.
You may well ask whether I am capable of recognizing a bad performance by Mr. Hinds. I have wondered the same thing, but after seeing him in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I had my answer. (It is, however, uniquely bad.)
There is plenty here for the fan to savor. Many observers have admired Hinds’ ability to underplay, to telegraph emotions through microexpressions. Indeed that is one of his strengths, and we see it here when a slight narrowing of the eyes, together with the tiniest of smiles, conveys Max’s skepticism and hostility toward Colonel Blunden. In the Golf Hotel, Max warily surveys his daughter with a questioning, backward tilt of the head. His interactions with Miss Vavasour are nuanced, as the two near-strangers gradually connect. But the real treat here is that the movie allows Hinds opportunities to show unrestrained emotion (compare the excellent but all-too-brief scene of rage in the recent McCanick). So realistic is his look of haunted desperation when he is about to receive the news of Anna’s death that I can understand why some people recoiled from the display of naked grief.
He doesn’t underplay the drunk scenes, instead allowing Max to lose his dignity in spectacular fashion (cue the cringe-inducing fight). Trying to capture screenshots of his hallucination scene with Anna, I almost gave up, because it’s impossible to show in a still photo what he is able to convey with his voice, face, and body in even a few seconds of film. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t down a fifth of Scotch before doing this scene… and yet he achieves the illusion without slurring a word.
Hinds has excellent chemistry with both Sinéad Cusack (the two have worked together three times before, though not onscreen) and Charlotte Rampling (once before, in the gem Life During Wartime). The screen time with Cusack is brief, but it’s enough to convey the dynamic of Max and Anna’s marriage, one of those unions in which the partners constantly take small jabs at each other— and occasionally draw blood— safe in the knowledge that they are tied together for life. As death approaches, certain truths become manifest.
In particular, I enjoyed the conversation between Max and Anna about Serge, an admirer of Anna with whom she may or may not have had an affair, long ago. Serge obviously has a low opinion of Max, who returns the favor with interest. After Serge stops at the table where they are having tea, Max teasingly reproaches Anna:
Max: How they do pop up, your old pals.
Anna: He used to be your old pal too.
Max: Was he? Was he now? I don’t recall that being the case. I seem to remember his being your pal.
Anna: Can I have some more tea?
Max: You haven’t drunk what you have.
Anna: Well, it’s gone cold.
Max then relates how Serge once explained to him that there was more color in one of Anna’s black and white photographs than a whole shelf of scholarly books about second-rate painters… such as Bonnard. Hinds manages to play this scene without making Max petulant. In fact, his Max takes a perverse delight in confessing the story, as if sharing in the joke on himself, but also enjoying the discomfort it causes Anna. Beneath his wry expression, you feel the old humiliation. Yet it’s also a backhanded and long-overdue acknowledgment of Anna’s talent.
Ciarán Hinds was the perfect choice for this role. Not only does he match Banville’s descriptions of Max as a man ageing out of his striking good looks, but he has the chops to make Max a sympathetic character in spite of his manifest flaws.
As Anna says, After all, we were only human.
Department of Trivia: Hinds fans will recall Karl Johnson (Colonel Blunden) as the crotchety Marcus Porcius Cato in HBO’s Rome.
The film that Max, Chloe and Myles watch in the seaside cinema is Gainsborough Studio’s The Wicked Lady (1945), starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.
When I realized this, I almost fell off my chair. I’ve been wanting to see this movie for ages! James Mason is a longtime favorite of mine (perhaps not coincidentally, he played Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita). There’s a great description of the film in this blog post by Dfordoom:
Anyone who thinks of 1940s British cinema as being a trifle on the staid side clearly has not seen The Wicked Lady. By the standards of its era it’s totally outrageous. It’s not just melodrama taken to the extreme, it’s extraordinarily sexy. It is very unlikely that any Hollywood movie could have gotten away with the salacious sexual subject matter and the risqué dialogue of this movie. How it got past the usually severe British censors remains a mystery.
This must explain why Chloe is moved to kiss Max during the movie– an event which the Max of the novel remembers with sweet, aching vividness. The Wicked Lady was released in 1945, but according to the production notes, the childhood scenes in The Sea are set ten years later, in 1955 when Max was eleven (apparently, cinemas in small seaside villages of Wexford showed very old movies). The modern-day scenes are set in 2006, which makes Max 62 years old. The Wicked Lady (available for rent on Amazon instant video) is next up in my queue! I’m making the popcorn as you read this…