Albatross (2011)

Emelia Conan Doyle (Jessica Brown Findlay), an aspiring author because of her assumed relationship to the Sherlock Holmes novelist — and something she continually tells people — is a bit of a loose spirit. She drifts from place to place and basically does whatever she wants. Her penchant for sarcasm is unmatched. At the beginning of Albatross, she finds herself applying for and acquiring a job at the bed and breakfast owned by a somewhat famous author, Jonathan (Sebastian Koch), and his family. This begins a chain of events that eventually forces everyone to grow up. It’s a coming-of-age story, although not just for Emelia.

Jonathan’s daughter, Beth (Felicity Jones), works as the receptionist and is currently looking into post-secondary schools. She and Emelia are opposites; Beth would rather stay in than go out and do anything, while Emelia feels caged in if she has to stay at home for more time than necessary. They bond regardless. The mother, Joa (Julia Ormond), dislikes Emelia from the beginning. Perhaps she read the script and learns just what this character will do to her family. There’s little other reason for this immediate and immense disdain.

Emelia and Jonathan hit it off much better. Too much better, really. She, 17 years of age, and he, in is mid-50s, begin an affair. Emelia and Beth become the best of friends, each growing from the relationships. Emelia does some maturing, while Beth allows her spirit to flow more freely, worrying less about potential ramifications — you know, like teenagers often do.

You can tell early on that none of this is going to last. We wouldn’t have much of a film, or an ending, if things just went on like this forever. Dramas like this one need that electric conclusion. You know that someone’s going to find out about the affair, and that will lead to fireworks and lives forever changed. It’s predictable but necessary, I suppose. There wouldn’t be much drama if we didn’t go in this direction. Besides, the film is based on real experiences by its writer, Tamzin Rafn.

The title, Albatross, refers to a constant burden around one’s (figurative) neck. It’s okay if you don’t know this, because a late-game speech by Emelia’s grandfather (Peter Vaughn) clears it up. The film can’t just be subtle about it; it has to just come out and say “This is what the title is referring to and part of the point of the whole movie.” I guess that shows exactly how much the filmmakers think of their audience. Perhaps the film is for younger teenagers. Its profanity and themes of adultery not withstanding. (My guess is that in its home country, the UK, it would get a 15 certificate.)

It’s heavy-handed and the narrative is actually pretty thin. It lets the characters and actors do most of the work. This is far more effective than it should be. As the “wild child,” Jessica Brown Findlay is eye-opening and carries the whole film on her back. A misstep from her could cause the house of cards to crash, but she keeps it on the rails and continually compelling. She’s fascinating and is the reason Albatross succeeds on any level.

The rest of the actors are thoroughly underused. Sebastian Koch does little with his writer character, who is still struggling to write a good follow-up to his only success, which came 21 years earlier. You see slight changes as the film develops but they don’t spawn from his performance. Felicity Jones goes from the shy, bookish character to a more well-rounded teenager. You can see this coming from the film’s first moments. Julia Ormond plays a one-note character throughout.

Everyone has something of burden halting any attempt to progress through life, and before the film is over they’re going to make a good attempt to get rid of it. That’s how the film has the characters grow. It’s not subtle but if you’re trying to drive a point home there are certainly far worse ways to go about it. I’ll take being too on the nose over being underdeveloped any day. At least then it’s on the audience for not “getting it.”

Albatross is an unsubtle movie about characters growing by getting rid of burdens that have kept them tied down and unhappy for years. It makes sure that you know this, both by its title, what happens within it, and by characters expressly mentioning that this is exactly what it’s about. Its narrative provides ample opportunity for them to develop, by which I mean it’s barely there and the film relies on the characters to compel us. It works to an extent, in large part because of Jessica Brown Findlay’s performance in the lead. Everyone else is good, but underutilized. I’m torn on Albatross, but it didn’t feel like a waste of time, so I’m inclined to recommend you see it.

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