SWEPT FROM THE SEA

PG-13
Reviews

You can't define U.K. director Beeban Kidron by genre; theme is the stuff of her connective cinematic tissue. 'The outsider' and 'redemption' thread through her impressive U.K. television debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and features Used People and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

Swept from the Sea, the retitled adaptation of Amy Foster, Joseph Conrad's love story between the eponymous village lass and her unlikely Ukrainian soul-mate, gives Kidron the new canvas of period drama. She proves herself an artist equal to its demands, though her foray takes an unpredictable path. Conrad is more akin to Hardy than Jane Austen; drawing-room wit foregone for passion and irony. Kidron's own sense of otherness suits her to the material.

The tale is slight, though landscaped with dramatic peaks; it's told in flashback by Dr. Kennedy (Ian McKellen) to his dying patient, Miss Swaffer (Kathy Bates). Amy (Rachel Weisz), rejected daughter of the brutal Isaac (Tom Bell) and long-suffering Mary (Zoe Wanamaker), ekes out a living as servant to rude, crude Farmer Smith (Tony Haygarth). Her salvation is her secret cave, solace from life's drudgery, where she can dance and smile among shells, seaweed and trinkets, washed up by her devoted friend the sea. When she discovers Yanko (Vincent Perez), sole survivor of one of the most violent shipwrecks ever to drench a plot, their lives ever after intertwine. At first, his foreign language misinterpreted by the illiterate Smith and friends as dementia, Yanko is put to work at the home of gruff Old Swaffer (Joss Ackand) and his kindly disabled daughter. But when the worldly Dr. Kennedy discovers that Yanko can play chess and that his unintelligible mumblings are actually Russian, the outsider gradually becomes his surrogate son. Not able to forget his sweet savior, Yanko seeks Amy out; their courtship (consummated in her cave), however, only inflames the villagers' prejudice. They cannot forgive what they refuse to understand. Only the doctor and Miss Swaffer offer both emotional and material help, though Yanko's pride divides him even from Kennedy. When the couple marry, Miss Swaffer gives them a cottage, isolated, like themselves, overlooking their precious sea. Their happiness, enriched by their baby's birth, is short-lived when Yanko's illness, coinciding with yet another brutal gale, forces Amy to enlist the doctor's help. His delay contributes to Yanko's death, as does Amy's final rejection by her own parents. But Kennedy ever after blames Amy. Not until the story again touches its beginning does Kennedy learn from Miss Swaffer of the couple's mutual devotion. As we learn that the intolerant village hides its own dark secrets.

The Polish Conrad, who reinvented himself as an English novelist, never strayed far from Slavic roots bathed in passion and darkness. 'I insist not on the events but on their effect,' he declared with typical fervor. Unlike Kazuo Ishiguro's quintessentially English characters in The Remains of the Day, who so poignantly repress their emotions, Conrad's lovers cannot contain themselves. Like the storms, rain and water which punctuate every consequential moment of the story, the lovers' relationship flows, trickles and torrents, seeping through every barrier, sweeping away every resistance. Yet the tale is flawed by Conrad's inability to give dimension to his characters, and more particularly his women. He conveniently has Amy take refuge from her plight in near silence, but the device begs too many vital questions. Sadly, Tim Willocks' script fails to put flesh on the bones.

Happily, Kidron translates the script into potent cinema, and her authority in dramatizing such elemental material enlists the support of some remarkable performers. Though she's created the ensemble that the piece demands, the spotlight falls on McKellen's well-meaning yet selfish doctor, whose discovery of Yanko fills both emotional and intellectual gaps in his misplaced life. Perez (The Crow: City of Angels, Queen Margot) invests Yanko with such truth and detail he grabs the screen and calls it home. Bates, who worked with Kidron in Used People, surprises not only with her credible accent, but with her sense of period and understatement. And Tony Haygarth may finally gain the recognition this mainstay of British theatre and television deserves. Weisz copes well with an underwritten part, and the others paint whole lives with simple looks and moments.

Transposing the tale to rugged Cornwall from the more sedate Kent provides the production with stunning visuals. The storm sequences especially resonate with the terror of devastation and renewal. Alex Mackie has cut the film like a symphony, each beat perfectly timed. Design, music and sound all contribute to the complexity of the landscape as well as the story, captured by Dick Pope's unerring lens.

--Beth Porter