'Sea Fever' Review: An Enthralling, Character-Driven Sea Monster Movie [TIFF 2019]

The open ocean has long been the stuff of nightmares, with suspicion and superstition developed over millennia by seafarers. On old maps they would write "there be dragons", and the oft-quoted fact is that we know more about the surface of the moon than the deepest waters of our planet. Neasa Hardiman's Sea Fever trades on the fear, fascination and exploitation of the depths, resulting in a film that's both harrowing and intelligent. A rare mix indeed.Siobhán (Herminoe Corfield) is an introverted yet accomplished marine biologist, finding more companionship in her petri dishes than her colleagues. As part of a study of ecologically sustainability she joins the crew of a rusty fishing ship captained by a sharp-eyed woman (Connie Nielsen) and her warm, capable partner (Dougray Scott). Financial struggles are hardly unknown to those that fish, and the lure of a big catch drives the ship into territory that shouldn't be trespassed, only to find the hunter and hunted dynamic shifted dramatically when an unknown species makes a surprise appearance.There are numerous allusions to several masterpiece genre films of the late-70s to early 90s, stories more about characters and their interactions than the visceral yet mindless thrills. Jaws, Alien and Carpenter's The Thing are obvious references, but unlike many lesser films that draw from these waters, Hardiman's script wisely focuses on the effects on the human dynamic, twisting our perspectives and resulting in a mood that's deeply engaging.Bad omens felt by Siobhán's red hair and the fishermen's refusal to learn to swim (to make death by drowning quicker) buttress against other, more nuances superstitions, including how one should respond to creatures behaving in perfectly natural ways that we as humans have inadvertently encountered. The message is one of ecological sophistication rather than didactic simplicity, twisting our allegiances and finding how decisions that affect the greater good and outward environment are always a challenge to the status quo, and that sometimes the bravest thing of all is to refuse heroics in favour of sacrifice.The performances are strong, the visuals effective, and everyone feels entirely believable in their roles even as the larger-than-life circumstances come to the fore. There are many twists on traditional characters here, including the gender of those making key decisions both good and bad, but even here it doesn't feel forced or a redux on what's come before, but instead a perfectly believable and well realized character study of different individuals with different histories and motivations, shaped by who they are but hardly defined by presupposed expectations of how they "should" behave by audiences accustomed to far more generic roles.The production design is excellent, the dark interiors of the rotting ship contrasted will with the bright, endless vista of the open ocean. The film avoids most needless horror-trope nonsense, yet still manages a few frights and creep-outs along the way. Fundamentally, however, this is a cerebral and emotionally rich film that still provides a genre kick, resulting in something quite extraordinary by being both respectful of classics past and feeling very much its own film.Sea Fever is quite the catch, a film that easily could have sank under narrative portentiousness and instead floats above many films of its ilk. The fact that it's a feature debut is all the more exciting, with Hardiman immediately emerging as a strong filmmaker to watch. This is an intimate film with grand ideas, a small boat floating on a giant ocean, and the extraordinary discovery at the heart of the narrative is outweighed by the sense as a filmgoer that we're seeing a talented director coming to the surface, sticking her tendrils in, and reshaping our expectations as we're taken along for the journey./Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10