John Banville's Booker Prize-winning novel is beautifully shot in Stephen Brown's stunted adaptation
We start with a turbulent, black sea and a totem-faced Ciaran Hinds pushing himself into it. He falls flat back, the water washing over him, spume frilling about him like lace, as he waits to be taken, to be released.
It’s no surprise that in the next scene we see Sinead Cusack as Anna, his wife, sit stoically in a doctor’s surgery. 'Well doctor, is it the death sentence or is it life?' The lingering silence in the room points to the latter. The dialogue throughout is pared, sparse, the anguished quieted. Everyone holds their suffering close to them as though for comfort.
Hinds is Max, an art historian grieving after his wife’s death, and returning to the Irish village where he spent his childhood summers, and, more specifically, the seaside pied-de-terre of the intoxicatingly middle-class Grace family.
It is now a guesthouse run by the elegant Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling), who strikes languid poses in doorways that are lit like Vermeers and smokes through a cigarette holder while wearing a kimono. Backstory is franked onto her every appearance, pitched as she is somewhere between Mrs Havisham and Norma Desmond. We know she’s going to do something, but what is she going to do?
The cinematography is unfailingly beautiful to look at and the sea itself is austere, brooding and oddly comforting, as it is for anyone who grew up on the shore – a familiar, relentless reminder of your place on the edge of the world.
The flashback sequences of the young Max, interacting with the wilfully dysfunctional Graces, are suffused with golden light; truly halcyon days. But we know from the very first that their fabulous Elizabeth David lifestyle is going to go badly wrong, as Connie Grace (a luminous Natasha McElhone) falls to her knees in a silent scream the first time we meet her.
The wine at their picnic, as it proves repeatedly throughout the film, is corked. The Grace’s are rum bunch, with intrigue and scandal snapping at their heels wherever they go: the children are posh thugs, the boy a mute bully, the girl a screamer of the Violet Elizabeth Bott school.
The father, Milo (a slightly over the top Rufus Sewell) is a boozy bounder, one hand on the bottle and the other round the waist of a local shop girl. Then there is Rose, the mysterious 'minder'. What function she holds within the household is only ever hinted at, but it matters not to Max, whose eyes ever linger on Connie.
Back in the grey and muted present, Max meets his daughter in an empty hotel restaurant. She wants him to come home so that she can keep an eye on him and his drinking, which is escalating badly.
This is one of the stillest and surest sequences in the film as Max and his daughter finally talk about what has happened. And then they don’t talk about it and rain beats gently on the windows of the great glass box that they are trapped in. It is a quietly perfect scene.
For a film based upon John Banville’s infinitely subtle, Booker Prize-winning novel, with its defiant nonlinearity, The Sea can plod between memory and presence, between the subjective now and the objective then. It’s as if debut director Stephen Brown doesn’t trust the medium or perhaps doesn’t trust his audience to understand what’s going on.
It’s like the hardback book on Pierre Bonnard that Max carries with him on his drinking holiday. It’s shorthand to tell you he’s clever and cultured, just as the way Miss Vavasour interacts with him – watchful, distant – tells you there is something wrong with him.
But we know all that – the story is an easily read series of progressions and the art house crowd who will be watching this film are sophisticated enough to know what’s going on.
As we get to the fugue ending, a degree of ambition takes hold and we are finally trusted to deal with a degree of difficult and ambiguous material, but by then it feels too late, the ending too pat, and when the final mystery is explained you realise it was no mystery at all. You knew it all along.
It’s a shame. This is a beautiful looking film, nicely paced and featuring some remarkable performances. It just needed to take a few more risks and, perhaps, discard the water wings.
The Sea runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until May 1.