The Sea by John Banville, for which he has written this screenplay film adaptation is a novel which one does not immediately see as being of a visual narrative.
In reading the book the overwhelming compassion and intimate description of feelings and minds, conjuring tricksteresque beautifully and flowingly prose, we are caught in wave after wave of thought and little dialogue.
The joins for film are the dialogue in the book so the viewer of the film need assume these portraits of the cinema and have revealed to them certain traits and habits common in mankind, which here is of the Irish variety.
It is constructed by John Banville as thoroughly as possible as a form of abridged storytelling with acknowledged differences yet incomparable to the excellence, as is inevitably the case with such a stylized novel, the written form. You can of course return to both time and time again.
Fate and time.
It is always possible to identify anyway with the fates, which Sebastian Barry recently related, “…..suddenly you see that everyone has been half drowned by the tsunami of things that happen.”
The sight of Ciaran Hinds in the very first frames, in a heavy coat in the waves and beached, breathing relates as much as this immediately.
The Sea. The title appears.
Our island selves
John Banville in the book describes the contradictions we all come across. He uses Acts in reference, but disdains of God “…creation..belief…an impiety”, unvenerative of the deity but holding onto spirit. A perfectly Irish view given the three Gods worshiped, the trinity and the order of things having only one pure God. No film has that ability of communication.
He would find in the Bible the shaping of the meanings he seeks also.
Where seaside holidays in the southern coastal resorts from in the northern side of Dublin, Laytown, (Neil Jordan’s origin) Ballbriggan, and to the southern retreats, beyond the vast Wicklow mountains – a terrain not for the fainthearted, Waterford , Tramore, Wexford beyond, provided beaches and as of the time in which the story is set around, the post war years of the world kind, a climate which was, well an Irish summer of easy going enjoyment with no cultural sentiment, though the illusion of the John Hinde postcard is one way of seeing it.
Character and Plot
Escapism was easy then and did not involve exotic parties, vast airports, for that matter small ones or distant oceans and ethnic guidance. Despite the hidden nature of the smaller places on our coastline and the state collusion there was little to see as an obstacle to happiness. So the urban well heeled and not so well heeled escaped or tried to.
Cairan Hinds is the art historian Max Morden torn back to reconcile his memory and his unadjusted feelings for losses that have happened in and since those sunny days.
His memory circles not around his own family, the father who leaves the village at the shore, (in the book Ballyless) to work in Ballymore and returning each night. His mother makes little appearance in the film and Max is an only child.
Of his seaside experiences he has a great deal to formulate for himself and it is thus he becomes entangled with fellow holiday makers from the big house behind his shack, the twins. Chloe and the mute Myles. Chloe does a lot of talking and the protecting for the both of them and has adopted, contrary to the desires and wishes of the easily infatuated Max, an allure of being a little madam. She and Myles have a mother, Connie Grace, Natascha McElhone who is radiant beautiful and host to a sensuous nature which for the most part is satiated by her pleasure seeking husband Carlos Grace, Rufus Sewell and they had as chaperone for the erratically tempered Myles, the aide de camp Rose whose age was on the cusp of adulthood.
The book is chapterless and has simply two parts though both carry references to each part, then and now.
Max Morden has the tragedy of loss himself to overcome and his relationship with his wife Anna played quietly and with compassion by Sinead Cusack is a formidable pairing of souls.
When this return to the house which the Grace family occupied, as opposed to the chalet, shack or ‘hut’ as Max described his holiday nest, there is a kaleidoscope of filmic playback and nudges in the developing backstory and foreground apparentness of the change which always results from association with the sea. The hardened memories which attach wildly and refuse to let go of the inhabited psyche. Along with the infinite joy that the mind recollects of times at or near the sea, there are disproportionate pains also in the recovery made in places revisited. Those feelings more so on a island such as ours and insular, maybe provincial, parochial as the interplay – the literal interplay – of different classes this film and book conveys; the separate local and blow ins, holiday makers who alight in your own playground. The local people feature as asides. The colonials are represented by the Grace family in the first part.
Max eschews the local kids and sets himself apart though not as a loner but of wanting something greater.
He wants and lusts a lot over Mrs Grace who he adores and young Max played by gives an easy comfortable performance as a boy on a quest.
He has a suitor maybe in Chloe, played by Missy Kavanagh ,the little madam who herself is a simultaneous protective twin acting out one part her life and looking out for the confounding, except to her, Myles, whose part is also at ease and convincing. Diecast as the voiceless twin he struggles without malice but frustration. The children as directed act out confidently and with subtlety.
The cast is equal to the task of portraying the philosophical, psychological traits of each character and when older Max returns to the house he had never boarded in, he meets the sanguine landlady, Miss Vavasour, played by the cheekbones of Charlotte Rampling. Something of a repetitive smoker who enjoys and quietly endures her own conpany. She understands the relapse to achohol which the return of Max brings about in him and his daughter of whom he is both proud and in need of have both got his best interests in sight.
Mind and Material
It is good to see a remarkable book, it is one of the previous decades best books as a period stretched drama. The direction of Stephen Brown is unobtrusive and the screenplay enabled by John Banville is the track along the which films direction takes us.
By taking on such a book, one which has intense feeling and much of it under the surface the director and actors have to draw out the undercurrent of; and this is again worth recalling that phrase of Sebastian Barry’s used above with which as a fellow writer John Banville will have no problem in endorsing, using alongside his narrative I would think – “…..suddenly you see that everyone has been half drowned by the tsunami of things that happen.”
It is plain Max Morden as most other characters, indeed ourselves, can occupy that place John Banville places him and it is a measure of both Irish authors they are plainly on the same astute page. The share the art, the gift of story telling I distinctly different ways but as a lineage of literature.
The music is as is my taste has it, clawing in parts and in final credits is only retrievable as it has been present throughout. Familiarity. Not a real problem but less is more.
Of product placement none I could report on, though Smithwick’s beer, now where is that brewed?
This is a strange brew as a film, a Miss Vavasour herbal tea of a film, with the figure of Ciaran Hinds, odd fleck of grey, with and without beard, furrowed face quite dominant and his rendering of the character is, as necessitated, expressive of the underlying emotions and he kind of lends melancholia to the part. There is little in the way of youthful exuberance and it is rather deliberate in pacing out the story and somewhat vague in parts unlike the book which has not (see below) been a book at the end of time. Rather it is in its title The Sea at times sunlit under an orange ochre sun or dark and revengeful taking in and taking out our memories.
It is well worth seeing and it does well being familiar with the book before or after to see the all round impressive nature of the work in both forms.
At QFT Friday 18 April to Thursday 1 May
16 April 2014
I recently asked John Banville at a book launch, if he foresaw any changes developing in the novel form; he had been talking about his new Raymond Chandler novel, which took him last summer into a new genre and perhaps fixed form storytelling that might in the authorship have told him certain limits of the novel as a media for our communicating ideas and examining or finding meaning in life.
He responded by saying that it had not made itself apparent, he was immersed in his subject alone, that for his part since Madame Bovary and Ulysees the novel had possibly reached its apogee (my word) that it has revealed as much as it can, that so many great writers have preceded the current times and only by continuing to write; – there remains a veracious appetite which will never die it seems for novels and this way of storytelling, – will there be any discovery or advance not yet apparent in the novel.
Without doubt John Banville is one of the top one Irish writers working today. The Sea is but a small element of the writing and in it he asks himself in the first person as Ciaran, if he has the correct word for conveying a message.
It need not be judged (as a question needing answered) as his art is to impart to the reader an essence of a story. The novel form comes across with characters who sometimes cannot articulate in speech or gesture their meanings. They are perhaps plain stupid or constrained by background, situation and education. The gift of the writer is on those occasions, without pandering to explain everything to us in excruciating detail, is to play the role of the person, (my interpretation) with inner thoughts and reactions minimal and fleeting. In The Sea when Banville asks if it is the right word as Cairan, he goes on with a symphony of words (no a composer could not adorn the film with music as substitute) and he puts into Ciaran’s life a concoction of emotions to bide him in this time. It is not replicated on film.
Irish writers from short story writers, where the necessity is greatly condensed, have this gift as part of their own immersion in the Irish formation of the novel in their reading and writing.
We live in hope that a mutation of the seed will change our direction of thought but can settle for the great variations which exist and are added to in continuum.
It is a lineage of writing that John Banville is on which is how he found himself describing it when vexed by his adherence and duty to his art.