Review: Albatross (2010)

BAFTA award-winning director Niall MacCormick makes his feature length debut with Albatross: a nuanced, charming and veritably witty coming-of-age drama, penned by Tamzin Rafn – a budding new screenwriter.

The film tells the story of a frustrated author, Jonathan (Sebastian Koch), and the incendiary effect of the arrival of verbose would-be writer Emelia (Jessica Brown-Findlay) on his family. Emelia first befriends and liberates his bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones), before going on to irritate his ever-frustrated wife, Joa (Julia Ormond), and finally bewitching Jonathan himself. Can Emelia shed the albatross that hangs around her neck and rewrite her personality?

Rafn’s nuanced screenplay opens as a freeloading, comical teenage drama, but slowly unravels into a highly intelligible, fully engaging and wonderfully articulate coming-of-age tale. Although the sexual relationship between Emelia and Jonathan is very much at the focus for the majority of the film, it actually plays as more of a catalyst to the main narrative: the budding friendship between Emelia and Beth, who rely on each other as their lives and personalities evolve over the course of the short but sweet running time.

At its heart, however – and behind the meaningless fabrications, sexual dalliances and supposed lifelong friendships – the script is more curious in questioning the overall purpose of life, the journeys we take, and how the people we meet along the way each have a different – but nonetheless important – effect on our individual growth and the understanding we have of our own personal being.

Having built up his artistry on numerous TV projects, MacCormick – with the aid of Director of Photography Jan Jonaeus – makes an almost seamless transition to feature length filmmaking with such delicate immediacy. Albatross is beautifully shot and wonderfully framed. The outdoor, scenic shots represent the freeness and unpredictability of life, and they are wonderfully contrasted by much more common indoor ones. These manage to convey the contained and often emotionally structured lives we become used to. The only time this isn’t apparent is during Emelia and Beth’s trip to Oxford, which highlights the freedom they feel being away from their small, claustrophobic home town, and the dominance of both their parents and the stresses of life.

What’s most surprising is how well placed the music is within the course of the film. Mixing both indie music – such as excellent uses of Frightened Rabbit and Editors – and composed tracks by Jack Arnold, MacCormick finds a perfect balance. The music adds another dimension to what’s happening on the screen, often enhancing the themes explored in the narrative, pushing them to the forefront and making them central to our understanding of the films underlying message.

The performances across the board are sublime. Brown-Findlay and Jones in particular, who play Emelia and Beth, each deliver astounding performances, defining their position as two of the most interesting and enthusiastic young actresses currently working in the British film and television industries. It’s the relationship between Emelia and Beth that is very much the backbone of the entire film, and so it’s a pleasure to see both Jones and Brown-Findlay so passionate and at one with their respective characters that their on screen friendship, with all its trials and tribulations, feels entirely authentic to the eye and within the context of the narrative as a whole.

Koch, Ormond and Peter Vaughan are the most noteworthy members of the supporting cast. Each show their warmth, never fading into the background, and always using Rafn’s terrific dialogue to push themselves and their individual performances. The interaction between Koch and Ormond is, at its best, unforgettable: full of sarcastic banter and humorous one-liners, while Vaughn brings a calm and contemplative nature to the table as Emelia’s unnamed grandfather. Ultimately, to see such a talented array of actors working in unison with such a sincere, witty and multi-faceted script is an utter pleasure.

On the surface, Albatross may – due to its similarities with other quirky coming-of-age drama – seem like an easy to foretell imitation. But, as the layers unfold, it transforms into a fully realised and thought-provoking piece of cinema, chock full of heart, depth and humour to boot. In simple terms, it’s very much a film that demands your attention from the offset, and pays dividends for your fathomless investment as it reaches a head.

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