Sea Fever, the unusual, four-nation collaboration, was given its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was not placed with other horror and suspense films in the festival’s ‘Midnight Madness’ category, but in ‘Discovery,’ which presents new or previously obscure directors whom TIFF consider particularly noteworthy. This is a breakout project for Irish director and scriptwriter Neasa Hardiman, who has formerly worked mainly in television and shows her to indeed be worth watching in future. She takes up the classic sea monster story, modernises and reshapes it, without losing either the horror or the mythical quality.
Central character Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) is a nerdy young oceanography student. The opening scene establishes the film’s perfect tension between the scientific view of life and of the ocean, and the sense of awe ocean life can inspire, with a slightly fantastical image of a young woman beneath the sea, marvelling at the life forms she encounters. It is, in fact, a glimpse into the mind of Siobhan immersed in her studies. So far these studies have been largely theoretical, as she prefers to study ocean life through computer programmes, but reluctantly agrees to accept a field assignment aboard a fishing boat.
Siobhan is comically out of place among a seasoned crew led by the couple who own the ship, Freya and Gerard (Connie Nielsen and Dougray Scott), on a fishing boat plagued by accident and financial worry, and perhaps with more to hide. Siobhan is red haired, causing alarm among the superstitious crew, who feel she will bring bad luck; and her strictly scientific interest in the trip puts her at odds with the practical concerns of the others. She, in turn, is put off by the crew’s brusque practicality, and by their grim attitude toward their work – as when they explain that fishermen avoid learning to swim, because “it’s better to go quick.” The film eases tensions and introduces an element of the uncanny which runs through much of the film, by having Freya relate old seafaring tales to Siobhan, one of which becomes significant to the story.
The possibility of danger is introduced in increments, as the crew and Siobhan notice minor oddities in the behaviour of shoals of fish, then unexplained difficulties with the ship itself. Suspense develops at a slow pace as the crew exhausts every explanation for their troubles, allowing the possibility to emerge that a previously unknown sea creature is responsible. At this point, Siobhan’s background in oceanography joins forces with the experience of the crew.
With Siobhan’s help, information about the creature they have encountered gradually expands, and understanding of the real nature and extent of the threat expands little by little. Each new revelation about the nature and intentions of the beast increases the level of horror, combining fear of the unknown creature with the more mundane dread of being marooned or drowning, and a certain amount of effective body horror as the monster’s influence expands. Development of even the minor characters allows for believable conflict as each member of the crew reacts differently, and dispute the best way to deal with the danger, while Siobhan’s mixed fear and fascination with the unknown threat intensifies the growing terror.
The unobtrusive soundtrack, set design (by award-winning designer Ray Ball), and camerawork in Sea Fever are remarkably effective, contributing as much to the suspense and the overall look and feel of the film as the script or the excellent ensemble performance. Beginning with the dreamy opening shot, which uses an unusual perspective for the undersea scene, the film makes effective use of sound, light, angle, and perspective to create the appropriate mood, whether fear, confusion, or awe.
The growing desperation of the crew comes across vividly, as escape becomes less and less likely, causing understated panic and adding to the unrelieved tension. Refreshingly for a monster movie, there is very little dependence on special effects; Hardiman has the sense to keep the sea monster largely unseen and mysterious, for most of the film showing only its effects on the ship and on the surrounding sea, and permitting only glimpses that keep the ever-present monster vague and almost mystical. The unreal quality of the beast is balanced by Siobhan’s determinedly scientific approach to the threat, although her logical outlook begins to take on elements of the mythic, coming to a head with the unexpected and dramatic conclusion, a conclusion which brings the story full circle in a strange but satisfying way. This outwardly simple horror film is an impressive first attempt by a very promising writer and director.