'Sea Fever': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A creepy nautical chiller that never quite reaches a fever pitch.

Irish writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s first feature, which co-stars Connie Nielsen, premiered in Toronto's Discovery section.

In the horror subgenre that was more or less invented by Jaws, we’ve seen boats attacked by sharks, megasharks, killer whales, squids, piranhas, Somali pirates, tidal waves, alien lifeforms and container ships (if you want to throw All Is Lost in there).

But we’ve never quite seen the breed of monster in Sea Fever, an unsettling if rather underwhelming feature debut from writer-director Neasa Hardiman, who previously helmed episodes of Happy Valley and Jessica Jones. The monster in question — a giant phosphorescent jellyfish with spermatozoa-like tentacles oozing poisonous secretions — is probably the most gripping element in a film that’s thin on characterization but thick on atmosphere, gore and a few solid scares, if not quite enough to seal the deal.

Embarking on a crusty fishing trawler with its own crusty crew is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but for the tenacious young marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), it's a surefire way to get firsthand knowledge for her thesis, which involves sea life, algorithms and ecological phenomena, or something like that.

But what’s supposed to be a simple field study turns into a grisly maelstrom when the ship, led by a wind-whipped captain (Dougray Scott) and his wife (Connie Nielsen), heads into forbidden waters. Soon enough, they sail smack into the mouth, or more like the mouths, of a mysterious creature that latches onto their trawler and won’t let go.

Hardiman does a good job teasing out the nature of her sinister leviathan during the opening reels, when the beast’s tentacles bore holes through the ship, discharging a sticky substance — it looks like a cross between sperm and Aquafresh — that slowly eliminates the team. “Cronenberg meets Cousteau” is how the presenter at Toronto, where Sea Fever world premiered in the Discovery section, pitched the film, and there are moments when it holds up to that promise, especially when delving out bits of gelatinous gore.

But as Jaws and all the best predecessors have shown (John Carpenter’s The Thing also seems like a major reference), you really need to care about the crew before they’re eaten, and Hardiman doesn’t draw strong enough characters for us to latch onto. There are a few nice moments of shipboard camaraderie, including a running gag that a redhead like Siobhán is a bad omen at sea (good luck with that in Ireland), but the script doesn’t always land the right balance between its creature-feature scare tactics and the people that said creature is body-snatching.

As the seamen are gradually offed by all those bioluminescent semen, usually in fairly disgusting ways (kudos to the special effects makeup team), the film tends to lose momentum rather than gaining it, working its way toward a finale that underwhelms. The cast is fine, with Corfield holding her own, Nielsen pretty much cameoing and Ardalan Esmaili (The Charmer) memorable as a clever engineer stuck below deck.  

Hardiman also displays a decent level of craft here — enough so that while Sea Fever doesn’t exactly grab you, it more or less guards you in its clutches until the final scene. Working with cinematographer Ruairí O’Brien, she captures the voyage with naturalistic verve, framing the trawler against a wide-open empty sea that’s all the more menacing for being so calm. Production designer Ray Ball gives the ship the rough and rusty feel of a sea-battered vessel, adding to the queasy level of realism.

Production companies: Fantastic Films, Bright Pictures, Frakas Productions, Makar Productions
Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Aradalan Esmaili, Olwen Fouéré, James Hickey Elie Bouakaze
Director-screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman
Producers: Brendan McCarthy, John McDonnel, Börje Hansson, Jean-Yves Roubin, Cassandre Warnauts, Eddie Dick
Executive producers: Patrick Fisher, Jonathan Feuer, Patrick Ewald, Shaked Berenson, Lesley McKimm, Peter Possne
Director of photography: Ruairí O’Brien
Production designer: Ray Ball
Editors: Barry Moen, Julian Ulrichs
Composer: Christoffer Franzén
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Epic Pictures Group

89 minutes