In the last couple of years, there have been a fair number of films that have impressively and respectfully dealt with the subjects of grief and loss—more specifically, they deal with the very different ways that we all do both when we lose someone close to us. From Manchester by the Sea to even something as traumatic as last month’s It Comes at Night, this sub-genre in the dramatic realm gives us a sense that grieving is both the most personal thing we can do, while also being a shared experience, in that it’s something we all go through at some point in our lives.
In his feature debut The Sea, director Stephen Brown digs deeper than most to show us the inner workings and mechanisms of grief, and how experiencing loss as a child impacts the way we deal with grief as an adult—perhaps even propelling us back into childish behaviors. Based on John Banville’s novel (who also adapted it), this 2013 film (which is just now making its way stateside) stars the ever-reliable Ciarán Hinds as art historian Max Morden, who is returning to an isolated seaside resort where he and his working-class family spent their summers, after the recent loss of his wife Anna (Sinéad Cusack). The location is the site of some of Max’s best and worst memories as both a child and adult, and even his adult daughter (Ruth Bradley) doesn’t quite understand why he’s picked this place to retreat into. Perhaps it’s one of the only places on earth where he feels he has permission to be his true, emotional self.
Jumping back and forth from the present, to his childhood memories of 1955, and to glimpses of the last few days with Anna, The Sea shows us Max at his extremes—from a curious boy (played by Matthew Dillon) to a much older man who has rediscovered the love he has for his wife only once she is stricken with a fatal illness. As a boy, he befriends twins his age, Chloe (Missy Keating) and the mute Myles (Padhraig Parkinson), as well as their parents Carlo (Rufus Sewell) and Connie Grace (a radiant Natascha McElhone), upon whom Max develops a slight crush. The twins are looked after my a mysterious younger nanny named Rose (Bonnie Wright), who is a great observer (and judger) of everyone else’s behavior and consistently has a tough time keeping the children in line. The family is playful, open, and everything Max’s poor family is not, and he loves every second being with the seemingly model Grace family.
The reason Max is remembering this particular summer are a mystery (that doesn’t take long to solve). The resort’s current caretaker is Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s sole regular resident is the elderly, eccentric gent Blunden (Karl Johnson). Aided with excessive drinking, the present-day Max allows his mind to be flooded with thoughts of his first love, as well as what will likely be his last, and to him the two seem to meet in the middle, confirming his nihilistic belief that everything he cares about suffers and dies in his presence. Director Brown has made a bold choice making his first film one that moves between and links the past and present in ways that also seek to find common elements of the two in a surprisingly complex and sophisticated manner.
Often seen as one of the world’s finest character actors, Hinds pours heart and soul into this performance, and the results are devastating. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than watching him sink to his greatest possible depths is witnessing him in the early stages of pulling himself back out, with the help of the very memories that drove him into the darkness to begin with. While perhaps not your typical summer movie programming choice, The Sea strikes several very authentic and adult chords, and might make for some solid counter-programming if you’d like a quieter, less frenzied time at the movies.
The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at Facets Cinémathèque.