Director: Neasa Hardiman Starring: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott Running Time: 89 minutes
From the visceral threat of Jaws to the unnerving nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft, the sea has always been a fertile breeding ground for horror. To cast characters adrift into vast, unexplored and uncaring waters means that they are exposed to one essential real-life fears – the instinctual anxiety that kicks in when a human is fundamentally and literally not on their home turf. Start adding freaky monsters into the mix and you can really start turning the screw, just as Irish director Neasa Hardiman has done in Sea Fever. Set aboard a small Irish fishing boat that becomes infested with aquatic parasites, the isolated ship mates become their own vessels and are as much at risk from each other as they are the horrors of the deep. What the film lacks in originality, knowingly but practically taking inspiration from classics like Alien and The Thing, it has gained considerably in timeliness. Let’s hope we don’t start seeing every movie through an “of-the-moment” lens, but if the lifejacket fits…
English actress Hermione Corfield stars as Siobhán, a research assistant much more comfortable hunkered down in a lab than in any social setting. Sent to collect research on the fishing trawler Niamh Chinn Óir, she finds herself initially failing to fit in with the more down-to-earth crew, led by a married couple played by Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen. Siobhán’s reserved, more analytical nature and her academic pursuits don’t fit seamlessly into the rough and tumble of life at sea at first, and it doesn’t help that she has red hair either, seen as an omen of bad luck according to the suspicions of ye old sea dogs. Even after she starts to integrate and hit if off with one of the young lads on board, fingers are all the more likely to be pointed in her direction when the ship veers off course and out of contact with the Coast Guard, out where There Be Monsters. Siobhán herself makes for a strong entry point to the tone of the film, something like a damage report on a myth; the measured, analytical approach working well when dealing with a mysterious sea creature that latches onto the ship and starts leaking infectious organisms into the water. There’s a sense of restraint in the filmmaking befitting the atmosphere, holding back on the special effects and relying on steady build-up to carefully selected gory spots.
Having spent some time working on American television including Marvel shows like Jessica Jones and The Inhumans , director Neasa Hardiman is comfortable working with an ensemble on limited sets. The ship has a clear visual geography, with an appropriate sense of claustrophobia coming both from the set – compact and busy – and the camera, often tight and slightly seasick. While there are a few dodgy accents at play from the bigger names in the cast, the crew receive reasonable screentime, with enough distinct dynamics and personalities to shake things up when the bodies start to drop.
While budgetary restraints may be a source of frustration, with Sea Fever mostly only able to nod at its big inspirations rather than coming anywhere near replicating their carnage, what plays out on screen squares well enough with the themes that Hardiman and co deserve credit rather than caveats. The film is primarily focused on people’s trust, on smart collaboration rather than emotional chaos, all while avoiding the off-putting coldness, both in the story and in Siobhán, that may be implied by that approach. There’s a sense of loss to the body count, rather than reveling in picking off the crew the film allows for some grieving, a fear of dying rather than a reaction to gore, and occasionally some tragedy, in the sense that it didn’t have to be this way. There is some rushing in the back end of the film, but when it gets there it has some questions to ask that films of this nature aren’t always concerned with.
Not everyone enjoys their movies questioning them and Sea Fever‘s style may not appeal to those who like their creepy crawlies to be more directly involved in kicking ass and taking names. It does allow for a fresh take though, and the thoughtful messages about banding together and of making difficult choices that play out of the many versus the few ensure that the film will now forever by tied to current events. It will be interesting to see in the years ahead how that conversation develops, but it’s also worth saying in the moment that the film still does stand on its own. Accomplished and introspective, particularly considering the technical difficulties that can come up shooting at sea, the film makes for a sturdy ship to navigate through some choppy waters.(3.5 / 5)