As a late night film on TV this was an undemanding but generally enjoyable watch. I watched it because of Felicity Jones and she and Jessica Brown Findlay as the two leads both give spirited performances. On reflection, the film offers a case study in the problems facing British filmmakers. There are quite a few films like this, offering vehicles for some talented performers and technicians but also being deeply flawed because of poor scripts. I try not to moan about scripts – I’m sure they are difficult to write and I couldn’t write one. However, the relatively inexperienced Tamzin Rafn doesn’t seem to have had much support here. The producers must take some of the responsibility.
Ms Rafn has stated that she was inspired by the example of Diablo Cody who developed the script for Juno (Canada/US 2007) after beginning to write autobiographically about her life as a stripper. Rafn took on board the idea of writing about what she knew and produced a script featuring a ‘naughty girl’ in a seaside town. From this interview it is clear that the script was gradually changed in pre-production and what began as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ domestic comedy became more about the relationship between two young women. The film begins with Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) as a rather mysterious but vivacious 17 year-old taken on as a cleaner in a small private hotel owned by Jonathan, the German writer of a single bestselling novel (Sebastian Koch), his shrewish wife Joa played by Julia Ormond, bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones) and her much younger sister Posy. Emelia is witty and tantalising and has soon entranced the writer and Beth, pushed Joa almost to the edge and amused Posy. Emelia is later revealed to be living with her grandparents and the ‘albatross’ of the title is that she genuinely believes she is related to the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. She has left school, started taking casual jobs and wants to become a writer.
The scenario sounds familiar with the insertion of a ‘disrupting influence’ into a family which has become mired in frustration in terms of its internal relationships. The reviews and critical reaction tend to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story with both Emelia and Beth as 17/18 year-olds. The marketing of the film deliberately makes reference to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (UK 1987). Tamzin Rafn tells us that Leland himself sent an encouraging message after the film’s Edinburgh screening. Leland made several very good films and TV plays about young people in the UK and Rafn finds parallels between her own experience and that of Emily Lloyd as Leland’s young heroine in a 1950s South Coast town. Both films make use of Bert Hardy’s iconic image of freedom and sexual liberation for holidaymakers in Blackpool – yet the young women in both films are residents not ‘grockles’.
And here is the second problem for the film. It was made by CinemaNX the company that managed the investment-funding of the Isle of Man Film Commission and its first and best-known credit was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (US/UK 2009) which used several key locations on the island. I think it has now been taken over by Pinewood Studios. The Isle of Man is a fabulous location with a range of landscapes and many buildings that can stand in for a variety of locations – as they did for a New York theatre in the 1930s in the Linklater film. In Albatross the key location is the pretty harbour of Peel. For those of you outside the UK, the Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Its glorious scenery reflects its geographical location, though it could also represent West Wales or the Cornish/Devon coast. But it doesn’t look like the coast further east where I take Albatross to be set. Landscape does matter. More important for the narrative perhaps, Emilia and Beth feel isolated in this ‘dump’ of a South Coast town. This is fine, but unlike Emily Lloyd in the 195os, 17 year-olds today could easily catch a train or hitch a lift to London at any time. Think how much more ‘isolated’ they would be located on the Isle of Man or the coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to one of the key sequences – Beth’s visit to Oxford for a university interview. A decent script would use the sense of place. The idea of the writer who buys a hotel in a quiet seaside town could work quite well – I’ve seen some films set on Scottish islands that do this.
The film eventually becomes about the two very different young women and many reviews compared the film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (UK 2004) with Emily Blunt and Natalie Press. The comparison doesn’t favour Albatross. My first thoughts turned to Sandra Golbacher’s underrated Me Without You (UK 2001) with Anna Friel and Michelle Williams. Again, the comparison doesn’t do the script of Albatross very many favours. It’s a shame because the performers are generally very good, including the wonderful Peter Vaughan as Emilia’s granddad. The direction is fine by Niall MacCormick and the ‘Scope cinematography by Swedish(?) cinematographer Jan Jonaeus shows off the locations very well. The music score is lively – but there is only so much you can do with characters who don’t have much to say that is interesting.
My initial focus was Felicity Jones. Here she plays a character much younger than her real age and it only showed a couple of times. This film completed a trio of youth pictures following Cemetery Junction (UK 2010) and SoulBoy (UK 2010), both ‘period’ stories. Also in 2011 she was the lead in Chalet Girl, an enjoyable romantic social comedy which perhaps I’ll write about later. Felicity Jones has already clocked up an impressive list of film and TV credits and is now beginning to appear in more international films following her The Amazing Spider-Man 2 appearance in 2014. This year she is opposite Jonah Hill and James Franco in the re-titled US film Jill. She has also completed the next Eran Creevy film Autobahn made in Germany with US money. I’m looking forward to that. Jones has been all over the US chat shows in the last few years and she is clearly going places. She’s clearly bright and hard-working and distinctive. I hope she can maintain that persona.
Meanwhile Jessica Brown Findlay, who is actually the lead in Albatross, hasn’t quite capitalised on her high profile in Downton Abbey as yet but she is clearly talented too. But then so was Julia Ormond whose reign as a lead in Hollywood films was altogether too brief in the mid-1990s. Now she’s a character actor (in a thankless role here, I think).
See all three of the British actors (I couldn’t find any reason why Sebastian Koch was cast as the author, unless it was an attempt to sell the film in Europe) in this (US) trailer: