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In ‘Albatross,’ Cleverness Is The Family Curse

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 12, 2012

Emelia Conan Doyle is eager for anyone she meets to know that yes, she’s related — so much so that she’s quick to point out her connection to the Sherlock Holmes author the moment she introduces herself, before a new acquaintance might even think to wonder.

Anyone who spends even a few minutes talking to the rebellious 17-year-old would immediately be aware of her sharp wit. But the great-granddaughter of Conan Doyle (Jessica Brown Findlay) wants people to think she’s possessed of a great literary mind as well — purely by virtue of her lineage. But with insecurities rooted in a rocky family history and a headstrong attitude that got her kicked out of school, even she’s not quite convinced.

It’s an inferiority complex that drives her to work at convincing people that cleverness is in her genetic makeup. Unfortunately Albatross, the first film from both director Niall MacCormick and writer Tamzin Rafn, suffers from a similarly overbearing desire to impress.

The title — complete, as Emelia would likely to be quick to point out, with pointed Coleridge citation — is a reference to how everyone in its small-town setting carries penitential burdens with them.

For Emelia, it’s the years-ago suicide of her mother, as well as the pressure to live up to her family name. For Jonathan (Sebastian Koch), a local author who runs a beach-town bed and breakfast with his wife Joa (Julia Ormond), it’s the massive success of the novel he wrote at the age of 22, which he hasn’t been able to replicate in the 20 years since.

The way these people are dragged down by their own pasts would be enough to draw the connection to the title. But Rafn’s script has not just one but three characters make explicit reference to the metaphor at different points in the story. No literary device is strong enough to withstand that kind of on-the-nose attention, and Albatross is filled with such moments — as when Emelia’s new best friend, Beth (Felicity Jones), makes a visit to Oxford University, and the soundtrack chimes in dutifully with the Vampire Weekend song “Oxford Comma.”

The lack of subtlety makes the story’s familiar beats only more obvious, as MacCormick and Rafn contrive quirky circumstances to manipulate these four dysfunctional people into learning important life lessons. Beth is Jonathan and Joa’s daughter, and she and Emelia strike up a friendship when Emilia gets a job as a maid at the B&B. The Oxford-bound Beth is as strait-laced and timid as Emelia is free-spirited and wild.

Joa immediately recognizes the new presence in the house as competition for the affections of both her husband and her daughter; Emelia, consistently savvy enough to see through everyone’s facade but her own, is only too happy to cause trouble, quoting Aldous Huxley at the dinner table to impress the pretentious, self-important Jonathan, and encouraging Beth to cut loose with the occasional joint or drunken party.

If ever the plot is in need of a nudge, Beth also has a much younger sister running around, with that specific little-kid precociousness that exists in movies entirely so someone can say the darndest things at the darndest time.

It’s a shame that the film comes across like an awkward and ingratiating teenager, given that the two performances at its core are so winning. Findlay and Jones are both playing well-worn coming-of-age archetypes here: the strong-but-damaged wild child desperate for some stability, and the geeky good-girl in need of loosening up.

But they both give more than is on the page, particularly Findlay (whom PBS audiences will recognize from Downton Abbey), who gives real depth to the brave face and wounded interior of Emelia. There’s a measure of effortless grace in what these two actors do onscreen — even if Emelia, and the film, are always trying just a little too hard. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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