Marine biology student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) joins the crew of a trawler as part of a research project and doesn’t get off to the best of starts when her red hair sets the crew talking of cursed voyages. Matters aren’t helped by ship’s captain Gerard (Dougray Scott), who needs a big catch to stay afloat in all senses of the word. Venturing into an area of the Irish Sea which should strictly be off-limits, the boat becomes marooned and strange organism latches on to the vessel, infecting its water supply…
With an impressive body of high-profile television work on her CV, writer/director Neasa Hardiman’s steadfastly low-key mix of unseen menace and contagion stories boasts a couple of big names in its cast – which not only includes Scott but Gladiator and Wonder Woman alumnus Connie Nielsen as Gerard’s wife and fellow crew member Freya. Scott and Nielsen are called upon to wrestle with Irish accents with, it has to be said, varying degrees of success but the odd bit of wonky vocal work doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere of mounting despair.
Corfield, too, is impressive as the awkward student, more at home with a pile of books in front of her than a group of folks who might want a chat. As a card-carrying ginge, I’m not sure about all of this malarkey concerning redheads who spell disaster on the high seas. I’ve been on quite a few boats in my time and almost all of them have returned safely. Honest. And in the case of Sea Fever, the problems are caused by Gerard’s singular drive to make a living rather than Siobhan’s titian locks.
The remainder of the trawler’s crew is made up of possible romantic interest Johnny (Jack Hickey), veteran Ciara (Olwen Fouéré), family man Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) and laddy Sudi (Elie Boakaze) and with all of the characters in play there’s plenty of opportunity to play the “who’s going to die, in what order, and who’s going to survive?” game. Come on, it’s a genre pic, after all.
In this respect, Sea Fever plays quite neatly with the audience’s expectations about which of the crew is disposable in terms of the plot, spending time getting the group to be wary of, tolerate and then welcome Siobhán before the blue sticky stuff hits the fan (and eats through sections of the boat). Rather than descend into screaming hysterics and big monster action, the story keeps its shocks realistic, more relatable and hence more chilling.
That’s not to say it doesn’t skimp on the blood when it’s necessary as the effects of the parasite come to the fore in horrible detail but you don’t get the spectacular mutations of something like The Thing, although there are shades of that in the way the team bands together – eventually – in an attempt to destroy the threat. There’s also a sequence in which a test is run on each person to work out whether or not they’re carrying the parasite, although this one doesn’t have blood leaping from a petri dish or flamethrowers on standby.
Sea Fever is more interested in the escalating dread, the gradual ebbing away of hope and the moral dilemmas faced by the characters as it slowly dawns on them that even if they are able to fix the ship and return to the mainland, maybe they shouldn’t if it means spreading their condition to the wider population. The cool, calculating scientific approach of Siobhán clashes with the survival instincts of Gerard in particular and I would have liked this confrontation to have been developed further. As it is, fate and the need to move the plot to its culmination push this out of the way before it’s fully explored.
This brings me to the story’s resolution, which delivers and then some in terms of jaw-droppingly beautiful visual effects in addition to throwing in one final twist that, although not entirely unexpected, is revealed in such a typically unsensational way that a worryingly large chunk of the emotional impact is lost. It’s interesting that I felt as resigned to how this all played out just as much as those on-screen but I was looking for something with a little more punch. Even so, I’ll admit this was strangely in tune with the overall tone of the piece but as the climax of a horror movie, did it work? I’m not so sure.
Sea Fever feels oddly unconcerned with delivering those archetypal shocks and thumping dramatic beats, opting instead for a more restrained yet still disquieting and sporadically resonant take on a shocker staple. Even the leviathan depicted here isn’t the psychotic, aquatic behemoth you’d find in so many other movies of this type. Here it’s just minding its own business and not even waiting to be discovered in order to wreak havoc. It initially mistakes the boat for another sea creature.
For those seeking out a loud, brash, monster mash, Sea Fever is most definitely not going to fit the bill. It’s going to leave those people scratching their heads and bemoaning the lack of severed body parts. For the rest of us, there’s enough in the way of suspense to just about carry it through, even though the subdued approach works against the build-up of tension in certain scenes.
At least Sea Fever does look to navigate a different channel but the overly familiar structure threatens to leave it in the doldrums when it should be setting a course for uncharted waters and it’s the sheer talent of its cast and crew which keeps the proceedings on an even keel. On balance, it’s a voyage you should take, but the missed opportunities to venture into new territory are frustrating.
Signature Entertainment presents Sea Fever on Blu-ray & Digital HD from April 24th