ALBATROSS – The Review
Review by Lani Barelona
If ALBATROSS (2011) was written and directed by one of the Andersons (Wes or P.T.) you would have heard about it.ALBATROSS was about a boy or set in a fairy tale world, you would have heard about it.
Alas, it was written by a woman, about a young woman, and set on the Isle of Man (a place I’m going to bet not many Americans have heard of, as we are not known for our geography skills. It’s in the Irish Sea, close to the boarder of Scotland and England and is a part of the UK).
The film stars Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame in her first role, as Emelia Conan-Doyle. Yes, that Conan-Doyle, or so Emelia was led to believe by her deceased mother (“I come from a no parent home”,Â she declares)
Seventeen year old Emelia is the stereotypical ‘bad girl by the sea’ as critics and reviews point out again and again – and rightfully so, as screen writer Tamzin Rafn was inspired by her own rebellious youth (“If you think Emelia was bad, Tamzin was worse”, said the writers mother to her friends at the premier) and the film Wish You Were Here.
So what is so wrong with a woman writing a screenplay with a character loosely based on her own exploits? What’s wrong with another ‘bad girl by the sea’? Nothing.
In fact, the film does a very, VERY good job of illustrating female bonds, the relationships of young women (and women in general), and the hardest part of being an adult (and wanting to be a writer) accepting the external reality as it is.
My theory as to why critics have given Albratross such ‘mixed’ or negative reviews: there is only one man central to the plot, and he’s pretty much dominated by the female characters. He’s a wimp, a push over, and practically delusional (he’s also a writer).
The central male character is Jonathan Fischer (Sebastian Koch), a writer who’s claimed to fame is that he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about the beach-side B&B he now owns. However, 20 years after his early success, Jonathan hides in his attic office attempting to write his next great novel. Plagued by writers block, and his demanding (3 dimensional) nag-of-a-wife Joa, Jonathan becomes more reclusive and less in touch with the reality of his life.
Both husband and wife are past their prime, and out of touch with reality. While Joa (played by Julia Ormond) is more aware of the financial day-to-day realities of running the Hotel, she is still lying to herself. Joa used to be an actress and her and Jonathan met while she was touring in a local theater company. Now, instead of going on auditions herself she pushes her younger plucky daughter Posey into auditioning in London (the results of such auditions are never discussed). At one point, Joa tries to secure new representation for herself as an actress, but is turned down by the PR firm as she is not currently starring in anything. Joa is perhaps the most tragic character; she is stuck on the Isle of Mann without of hope of returning to the life and career she once knew (before bumbling husband and the birth of her children).
The character most in touch with reality is Jonathan and Joa’s oldest daughter, Beth (Felicity Jones). Beth is 17 and studying for her comprehensive or exit exams, and also vying for a spot at Oxford (her father’s alma mater). She meets Emelia on Emelia’s first day as a maid at the her parent’s hotel. The girls become instant companions and Beth’s loyalty to Emelia is ‘fervent’ until the 3rd act of the film. Beth sees Emelia for what she really is – Beth does not seem to be impressed that Emelia’s supposed great grandfather wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. Beth doesn’t judge or look down Emelia for being expelled, orphaned, or a member of the working poor. In a strange sense, Beth is so ardent in her worship of Emelia because Emelia is the exact opposite of Beth. Beth is shy, bookish, and keeps to herself. Emelia is born to make trouble and she does.
She makes trouble when she betrays Beth’s honest friendship. If Beth’s loyalty as friend stems from having never had someone her own age as a companion, then Emelia’s downfall is the same. Emelia has never had a relationship that is complicated by something outside her control (death, abandonment, etc). In her friendship with Beth, Emelia creates her complication herself; she betrays Beth and her family by engaging in an affair with Jonathan.
Emelia is the three dimensional embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Emelia, also, brings a level of class consciousness not seen in most Hollywood style films. She doesn’t have a camera, or a camera phone, or a laptop. She works at the Bed and Breakfast, instead of being able to stay in one. She was expelled from ‘parochial’ school
for being delinquent after her mother’s death. It’s likely that she was delinquent because she was providing for her elderly grandparents. And if she was still in school, she would be sitting her exams just like Beth, but she probably wouldn’t be able to afford Oxford. Instead Emelia is a waitress and a maid, and if not for her belief that she is destined to be a writer, she’d probably be stuck in pink collar hell.
Surely, you would have heard of Albatross if it was a Wes Anderson film. If Emelia was Emil, if Isle of Man was Manhattan, and if story books could be lived inside of instead of needing to be written. However, if the film were written and directed by Anderson it would have fallen short of the success that it is.
Albatross is ultimately successful because as the audience we can see through each character’s pretensions. We see Emelia betray Beth; we see what a loser Jonathan is, and we see how hopeless Joa’s situation continues to be. And in Emelia, we see that beneath her bad-girl-destined-to-be-a-writer exterior that she’s just a girl, with some adult responsibilities heaped on her, and that she’s not as collected as she wants to appear. She isn’t naive enough to assume that Jonathan loves her (although he is that naive), she has had boyfriends before. However, Emelia is naive enough to believe that her affair with Jonathan will not have a direct influence on her external reality and she seems a big surprised when Beth gives her the cold shoulder after the affair is discovered.
And if Emelia is conducting her affair with Jonathan as fodder for her novel, it apparently works, as she is seen at a copy shop with her manuscript at the end of the film. Emelia becomes a writer despite not actually being a Conan Doyle, just a regular-old Doyle.
The Conan-Doyle moniker is shown to actually be the albatross around Emelia’s neck, her desire to be a writer and have exploits worth writing about is what leads to her downfall – it’s what leads her to having an affair with Jonathan (who invites her to his office to study creative writing with him) and the affair is what loses her Beth’s loyal friendship.
It is not until she accepts the fact that she’s just a plain-old Doyle that she writes her novel, entitled Albatross.
So the answer to the “Are there too many bad girls by the sea?” dilemma is: of course not. I vote for more. I vote for girls of all kinds by all types bodies of water. The real moral of the story is that writing an honest portrayal of women will not win your film commercial or critical success, even though it should. In fact, it may be your albatross.