Review: A Story of Love and Loss, The Almond and The Seahorse Plays More Like a Subpar Movie of the Week

Based on the play of the same name by Kaite O’Reilly (who also co-wrote the screenplay with co-director and co-star Celyn Jones), The Almond and the Seahorse is about as misguided as it is well-meaning, and it’s a lethal combination. Tackling the weighty subject of two couples living with one person suffering the after-effects of a traumatic brain injury, the film attempts to illustrate how different people’s brains react in a variety of ways to such injuries and how their partners are left to pick up the pieces, often very much by themselves. This is a film that asks us to feel sorry for everybody involved, which I guess we should if we had some sense of what was lost coming from either the writing or the performances.

Rebel Wilson plays Sarah, whose husband Joe (Jones, who co-directed with Tom Stern) has a brain tumor removed and has lost the ability to keep his memories up to date. Worse yet, he actually seems to be losing older memories, making it entirely possible he’ll regress to a time before he met Sarah. Joe’s mood often swings all over the place, but he seems fairly docile, just chronically forgetful and sometimes dangerously impulsive. Sarah seeks help from Dr. Palmer (Meera Syal), who initially treated Joe and agrees to bring him back in for observation but has few words of true encouragement beyond “Everybody’s brain is different” and “Everybody’s brain heals or breaks down differently.” It’s an understandably frustrating process, but Wilson’s skills as a dramatic actor maybe aren’t up to the task of conveying her plight.

Better handled from a performance standpoint is the partnership between Toni (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Gwen (Trine Dyrholm), who was in an accident years earlier and wakes up every morning having forgotten the day before. Toni has spent years of her life with Gwen in this state, and is realizing that they are all for nothing if they can’t have shared experiences that are remembered the next day and the day after. She’s ready to bail, but she too brings Gwen into Dr. Palmer, and this is where the two couples’ lives intersect, as Sarah and Toni begin “comforting” each other for a time.

Both Joe and Gwen seem to have the type of brain issues that suit the needs of the screenplay. When the filmmakers need a scene in order to convey the closeness of the couple, their brains seem to work better, and they’re more generally pleasant to be around; when we need to empathize with their occasional need to leave the situation, we give them a bad day, and that simply isn’t how these things work. Truth be told, only half this movie comes close to working, and that’s the Toni/Gwen story, simply because the acting is so much more convincing and less delivered. Even in the moments with Sarah and Toni, Gainsbourg just exudes a natural coolness and understanding of the nature of their relationship. Sarah freaks out in a fit of gay panic, while Toni makes it clear they were helping each other through something overwhelming and emotional, so their needs were similar.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed Syal as an actor, the material she’s given here from the writers is simply abysmal. She’s more of a philosopher than a useful, helpful doctor, and while everyone gets that answers are hard to come by when it comes to brain injuries, there are better ways to comfort patients or their families than what happens in this hacky movie. The Almond and the Seahorse is about on par with a below-average movie of the week or a medical drama that focuses more on the spirit of a hospital than actual medical practices. It believes it’s deep and meaningful when it needs to be more in tune with the needs of the people in the story. As a result, it serves neither its characters nor the audience.

The film is now open theatrically in limited release.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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