“Beautiful. smart. talented. trouble.”
Director: Niall MacCormick
Cast: Felicity Jones, Jessica Brown Findlay, Sebastian Koch
Synopsis: Beth, a bookish teenager, befriends Emilia, an aspiring novelist who has just arrived in town. Emilia soon begins an affair with Beth’s father that threatens to have devastating consequences.
In an industry that seems increasingly preoccupied with making things bigger, louder and more wondrous, it’s nice to find a movie that concentrates on people for a change. Too often now, characters in films are nothing more than a human-shaped outline that lacks depth, cohesion or distinction, and serves no purpose other than to respond to whatever situation the writers believe will fill multiplex seats. This focus on spectacle at the cost of introspection is a foreseeable consequence of the explosive advances in technology which now enable even the most cash-strapped director to create a reasonable facsimile of life made big in every way imaginable. This readily available technology has mainstream filmmakers thinking it’s imperative that they must make constant use of it if they are to score at the box office. And the sad fact is, they’re right – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for small, independent movies like Albatross as well.
Albatross takes place in the small coastal town in which rebellious teen Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) lives with her ageing grandparents. She begins work as a chambermaid at the Cliff House, a bed-and-breakfast run by Joa (Julia Ormond), a brittle, frustrated mother to seventeen-year-old Beth (Felicity Jones) and little Posy (Katie Overd). While Joa slaves to keep the B&B afloat, her husband Jonathan (Sebastian Koch) works on yet another novel that is doomed only to receive publishers’ rejection slips. Many years ago, he wrote a best-seller about their house by the sea, but ever since he has struggled to produce anything near as good.
Emelia bursts into this stagnant household like a hurricane upon a becalmed boat. She possesses not only a free-spirited insolence, but also an ability to see right through other people’s pretensions and a habit of precociously articulating her observations in a manner that keeps her targets repeatedly wrong-footed. Beth is her exact opposite in both temperament and self-confidence, and normally shuts herself away in her room to escape the arguments of her parents, but a tentative friendship is soon established, and it’s not long before Emelia finds herself invited to a family dinner, where Beth’s father begins to take an interest in his daughter’s new friend.
Albatross places four sharply defined characters under the microscope and gently proceeds to examine them in detail without resorting to the type of melodramatics that can so often derail otherwise acceptable character studies. Its understated delivery avoids soap opera cliches and benefits from uniformly excellent performances. Young Jessica Brown Findlay, in particular, marks herself out as a name to watch in a part which is undoubtedly the film’s showiest, but which also calls ironically upon a level of maturity on her part. Although Emelia is the protagonist changing the lives of those around her, each scene also reveals a little more about her to us. Her pride at being a descendant of author Arthur Conan-Doyle actually disguises the character defects that have arisen from a childhood bereft of parental love or stability and her pointed observations, which she essentially uses to keep people at arm’s length, are (rather pointedly) revealed to be a symptom of the albatross that haunts her.
Perhaps unexpectedly, more attention is paid to Sebastian Koch’s middle-aged father than to Beth – or perhaps that is because his character is drawn in less subtle tones than that of his daughter. His albatross is that best-selling novel written so many years before, a life-altering event that he has allowed to overshadow the rest of his life. His pretentiousness is transparent, his insecurity immense, and his character grows increasingly pathetic as he embarks on an affair with the seventeen-year-old Emelia. Although he ultimately pays a heavy price for his philandering, in a rare miscalculation, writer Tamzin Rafn, sidesteps reality by having him appear to suffer so little from losing his family and being cut adrift from the house that has literally and figuratively enveloped him for so long.
Albatross is writer Tamzin Rafn’s debut screen credit, and while her story might lack originality, it makes up for it with a refreshingly buoyant, entertaining screenplay that somehow manages to make all four characters come across as emotional castaways who might, on occasion, do some reprehensible things, but still manage to remain likeable. Because she takes such an interest in each of the four main characters, the film lacks focus at times, and the uplifting ending feels just a little too contrived, but otherwise Albatross is the kind of movie we don’t see often enough these days.