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.(Imdb)
Should you believe movies like the pleasant but unexceptional Albatross, a key rite of passage for shy, bookish young women involves meeting up with a peer who lacks any boundaries or inhibitions. These wild child types range from Desperately Seeking Susans to Poison Ivies. They tend to talk tough, impudently snap their gum and are always casually stripping in front of the modest heroine. In the extreme, they think nothing of sleeping with her father. This bad girl’s tricks rarely vary; for instance, once she turns up wearing the good girl’s clothes, it won’t be long before someone gets at least their feelings hurt. This predictable troublemaker tends to the tedious, and the stereotype is the real albatross in Albatross.
Seventeen year-old Emilia Conan Doyle (Jessica Brown Findlay) struts around the Isle of Man, a picturesque island plunked between Northern Ireland and Scotland, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I Put Out.” (The shirt doesn’t lie.) She lives with grandparents — her father disappeared, her mother killed herself — and the movie’s most touching scenes involve this ancient, fragile couple. Sweet demented Granny keeps mistaking Emilia for her mother, Granddad seems like a disapproving grump but proves to care far more about Emilia than she expects. She doesn’t have much in the way of friends until she takes a part time job as a maid at Cliff House and meets Oxford-bound Beth (Like Crazy‘s Felicity Jones) whose family owns and operates the inn.
Their relationship is a teasing one. Emilia ribs mousey Beth and Beth gazes adoringly at her. She’s assertive, daring, all the things that Beth isn’t. She’s also obnoxious and prone to challenging authority at the hotel and a restaurant where she waitresses. Brown Findlay, known to fans of Downton Abbey as Lady Sybil, is fetching and has a honeyed, seductive voice but no matter how captivating she is, there’s no way any boss would tolerate her sass. The movie assigns this character a power over others, but doesn’t illuminate its source or offer a proper defense of it — such a power could only exist if all other characters were doormats. It’s unreasonable to expect us to believe that Beth’s mother (Julia Ormond), a vigorous shrew, wouldn’t give Emilia her walking papers after a day.
Her sexual power however, is never in question. The attraction between Emilia and Beth’s father Jonathan (Sebastian Koch) is wrong but still makes plenty of sense. Compared to the island boys she’s used to, he’s George Clooney. Compared to his aging, bitter wife, she’s an audacious tonic, a willing Lolita. She teases him, mocks his stalled writing career – an early bestseller centered around the enchantments of the Cliff House and was followed by a string of flops – and flirts brazenly with him in front of his wife (poor Ormond, reduced to playing the desperate to seem young shrew when a couple of decades ago, she was positioned as the next Audrey Hepburn). Jonathan, who lights up like a candle in Emilia’s presence, offers to help her edit the novel she claims to be writing, an invitation to his attic lair right up there with “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Koch (The Lives of Others) succeeds in making Jonathan bearable by conveying his raft of middle-aged insecurities and vulnerabilities. Jonathan’s lowest moment involves a “P”-themed birthday party for Beth’s little sister. He’s dressed as a pope and Emilia as Princess Leia, they duck into a broom closet. It’s sad and creepy but director Niall MacCormick also makes it a little funny.
That’s in keeping with the film’s underlying confusion about whether it wants to be briskly amusing (its lively, jazzy score feels like something that ought to be accompanying a comedy) or a serious coming of age story about Emilia recognizing and moving past her demons. The similarities between it and the Isle of Wight-set 2001 film Me Without You, which featured the very young Michelle Williams as the good girl and Anna Friel as the naughty minx, are uncanny. In both cases, the performances are compelling (although Jones is underused) but the thin narrative is less instructive of the strange way female friendships operate than of the way stories get recycled. Girls, they’re either naughty or nice! Madonnas or whores! If you want to see a great film about screwed up relationships between women, try Persona, All About Eve or Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Albatross looks like a scrawny sparrow next to them.
BY ANDREW SCHENKER ON JANUARY 8, 2012
Yes, the title of Albatross is a metaphor. In fact, the eponymous bird shows up not as a figurative chokehold around the neck of simply one character, but at least three. Everyone has his or her burden in the film, but rather than convincingly communicate this fact in dramatic terms, director Niall MacCormick and screenwriter Tamzin Rafn fall back on a lame literary device to pound home the point.
It’s far from the only poor choice the filmmakers opt for in this misguided coming-of-age/unraveling-of-a-marriage drama, a movie that continually loses focus in its shift from one set of characters to another and falters on its inconsistent attitude to those same figures. Set at a seaside hotel on the English coast, the film does nothing to endorse Tolstoy’s (name-checked in the film) famous novel-opening maxim about unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. There’s nothing unique about the familial discontent that characterizes the hotel owning clan: There’s the blocked novelist Jonathan Fischer (Sebastian Koch), trapped by the decades-old success of his first novel; his unsatisfied wife Joa (Julia Ormond), who gave up her acting career years ago and now resents it; and their teenage daughter Beth (Felicity Jones), caught in between. Into the mix comes sassy 17-year-old cleaning lady Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay), whose prickly personality is evoked in a heavy stream of sarcastic comments and whose wildness is conveyed in an unfortunate scene where the underage teen buys alcohol by flashing her breasts at a pimply store clerk.
Before long, Emelia is befriending good girl Beth—taking her to parties, getting her laid and possibly pregnant—and fucking her father. But the filmmakers seem uncertain how to handle the ebbs and flows of the film’s interpersonal chemistry or how to regard its characters, most of whom tend toward the monstrous. Jonathan, a feckless would-be cad, is sufficiently chastised for his behavior, but he’s still let off easy despite his inability to evince not a single redeeming quality. Similarly, Emelia goes from being simply a bad, if highly intelligent, girl to a sympathetic character, but only because the film keeps insisting on her horrible backstory—dead parents, grandma with Alzheimer’s, class resentment. With the dramatic deck so heavily stacked toward dictating our attitudes toward the film’s characters, none of the resulting shifts of alliances feel anything like organic.
But beyond that, Albatross is simply a compendium of bad ideas. Whether it’s matching the obviousness of the titular metaphor with thuddingly literal-minded music choices (Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” punctuates a trip to, yes, Oxford), crafting credulity-straining sequences as when aspiring novelist Emelia claims one of the most famous opening sentences in literary history (The Great Gatsby) as her own and man-of-letters Jonathan is none the wiser, or making questionably positive use of a T-shirt that reads “I Put Out,” MacCormick’s film hasn’t got a clue. And the proof of this is that the movie’s moment of coming-of-age fruition turns on the physical transfer of the aforementioned tee and, with it, the sentiments included. Who knew that becoming a young woman meant nothing more than embracing one’s inner slut?
Making its world premiere at the EIFF 2011, Niall MacCormick’s coming-of-age comedy-drama Albatross is destined to be one of the most talked about and beloved British films of the year, not least because it balances feel-good laughs (a kind of believable British equivalent to the humor found in Juno) with pertinent issues for all ages.
The film follows would-be writer Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) who takes a job as a cleaner in a seaside hotel owned by frustrated writer Jonathan (Sebastian Koch) and his family. She soon befriends his daughter, Beth (Felicity Jones), and naively gets involved with the writer while dealing with her personal issues and home life.
Aside from the brilliantly observant script by first-timer Tamzin Rafn, the cast is what makes Albatross work so well. Standing out is Koch (you may know him as the lead in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others) as Jonathan who seems unable to resist Emilia, who comes along at just the right/wrong moment (depending on how you look at it) as he is struggling to replicate his earlier literary success while his marriage is beginning to break down; Jones as Jonathan’s hopeful student daughter who starts to let her hair down; and particularly relative newcomer Findlay as the charming and conflicted Emelia who comes into this family’s life like a whirlwind.
The film jumps effortlessly between touching human drama and true-to-life comedy (sometimes from one moment to the next), never once feeling like its two types of movies vying for screen-time as is so often the case. Everything from the forbidden relationship between Jonathan and Emelia to her complicated home life rings entirely true, belying the inexperience of Rafn as a screenwriter.
Albatross is exactly what you hope for from a coming-of-age “dramedy”: cute without being schmaltzy, sweet without being sickly, insightful without being preachy. With a dynamite debut script from Rafn, Albatross is just about as good as this sort of thing gets and is easily one of the best films being showcased at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.