Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Albatross (2011)

Before I get to the topic at hand, I find that I've some undone business; I also find that I am no longer able to count from one to ten!  After my first FrightFest review, I wrote that there were nine films left to consider, but I somehow only managed to mention eight of them in my second column. So what did I miss? Only one of the more unforgettable screenings, although to my warped perception not necessarily one of the best, namely the Soska Sisters' "American Mary".  These two young Canadian sisters (twins actually), Jen and Sylvia, are revered in certain quarters for their first feature "Dead Hooker in a Trunk".  This is something of a cult item for self-appointed pundits like Eli Roth; personally I found it a pile of unwatchable, juvenile rubbish.

Their most recent production, which has now been taken up by one of the major studios for distribution, is the story of medical student and aspiring surgeon Mary Mason, played by the "Ginger Snaps" break-out actress Katharine Isabelle.  Plagued by financial problems and after being doped and raped at a party hosted by her previously revered instructors, she falls into the shady world of body modification surgery.  There is apparently a parallel population of weirdos who are prepared to pay big money for unthinkable alterations to their flesh.  Isabelle embraces this underground world with a kind of insouciant nonchalance which is amusing at first, but which soon becomes tiresome. Among her clientele are the Soskas themselves who wish to exchange body parts -- an arm for an arm as it were.  No doubt this film will also attract a cult following, but I'm afraid that I won't be among them.  And just out of curiosity why is a Canadian-made film by a pair of Canadian sisters and starring a Canadian actress called "American" anything?  Are we to assume that Americans by definition are more prone to freakdom than their sober Canadian neighbours?

Back to the present.  I had originally intended to write about "One Day" (2011).  The book by David Nicholls, which I have read, was enormously popular here; it follows two Edinburgh University acquaintances, Emma and Dexter, who hook up on their July 15 graduation day for a non-sexual encounter and it then focuses on their respective lives on the same date for the next twenty years or so. Their individual successes, failures, foibles, and attempts to find love are well-charted, and the reader waits for the day when the two finally realise they are hopelessly in love and emotionally bound to each other.  The author himself adapted his book for the screen, but the rolling years and events had a bitty feel to them. Emma is played by the American actress Anne Hathaway, presumably for box-office potential, and her slipping Yorkshire accent is less of a problem than the relative lack of chemistry between her and the male lead Jim Sturgess.  If you've not read the novel, the film is possibly an acceptable alternative, but a far lesser pleasure.

I was not expecting anything too special from "Albatross", one of Sky's premiers of the week which fell into the category of 'Where do they find them?', since it certainly made no impact at the box office. It was however something of a pleasant surprise, a quirky coming of age story, with a remarkably starry cast.  Julia Ormond (she who was quickly killed off two reviews ago) is married to German writer Sebastian Koch (immediately recognizable from "The Lives of Others" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book").  He had a major publishing success at an early age, the proceeds of which purchased the seaside bed and breakfast establishment that Ormond runs, but he has struggled with writer's block ever since, spending most of the day masturbating in front of his laptop.  They have two daughters, 17-year old Felicity Jones (who has been having her own break-out success recently) who is studying hard, hoping to enter Oxford, and a bratty, precocious 6-year old whom Ormond is trying to thrust into show-business to compensate for her own earlier glory days as an actress.  Into their lives as a chambermaid comes young 'Selena Molina the Cleaner', real name Emilia Conan-Doyle, who believes she is the great-granddaughter of Sir Arthur and that she has writing in her blood. Emilia is played by Jessica Brown Findlay in her first big-screen role and steals every scene from the more experienced cast.  She is apparently one of the stars of the television series "Downton Abbey", but since I have never watched this, she was a revelation.

She befriends the young and inhibited Jones, helping her to break out of her introversion, manages to consistently tick off the shrewish Ormond, and unthinkingly starts an affair with Koch who is theoretically helping her learn to write.  While she obviously has some talent, she delights in copying passages from the works of well-known writers for him to critique and delights in his pretensions in managing to negatively criticise all of them.  Her flaky mother who encouraged the Conan-Doyle connection has committed suicide and she lives with her grandparents, a dementia-suffering grandma and grandpa the lovely Peter Vaughan.  After the former's death, he finally admits that her long-gone father was indeed called Doyle, but the rest of it was a figment of her mother's imagination, and that the baggage we each carry is our own albatross.  All hell finally breaks loose when Ormond thinks Jones is pregnant -- all part of Emilia's bad influences -- and the Emilia-father affair becomes known to the rest of the family.  Dad is thrown out of the house and Emilia becomes persona-non-grata all round.  But as Koch prepares to drive Jones up to Oxford, and as we realise that Emilia has now successfully penned her first novel, a glimmer of grown-up realisation softens the faces of both girls.

The film is a quite well-done, an amusing yet serious study of family relationships and the pains of facing the adult world.  It is however geographically confusing; meant to be set in a small mainland English resort town, it was actually financed by the Isle of Man Film Board or whatever and shot on that island with its distinctive, majestic scenery -- not that this detracted from the tale. All in all, however, well worth seeking out.
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