Swept From the Sea
1998, PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Beeban Kidron. Starring Rachel Weisz, Ian Mckellen, Vincent Perez, Kathy Bates.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 27, 1998
Conventional wisdom wouldn't seem to bless the idea of a romantic melodrama adapted from Joseph Conrad by the director of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And yet, among Conrad's generally cool and reflective works the largely forgotten tale, Amy Foster, on which Swept From the Sea is based, probably comes as close as any being suited for this purpose. Kidron, meanwhile, displays a knack for walking the razor-thin line between perfervid passion and schmaltz -- or at least knowing when to cross it for maximum effect. Assuming that you're prepared for a certain amount of emotional overkill and florid dialogue (and the filmmakers' intentions couldn't have been clearer if they'd printed their posters on the embossed card stock of Silhouette Romance covers), the images of impassioned lovers embracing atop windswept crags, etc. should go down as easy as a sinfully rich brandy truffle. Regrettably, for all of Kidron's skill manipulating the imagery of high romance, this really isn't a love story in the traditional sense. Conrad's heroine is Foster (Weisz), an ethereally beautiful English lass shunned by residents of her coastal fishing village because of her alleged simple-mindedness and the reputedly scandalous circumstances of her birth. Her response to this ostracism is to develop a flaky, Stevie Nicks-like pagan wraith persona (no minor transgression in my book) that further alienates her from the dour and god-fearing locals. One day, love enters her solitary world in the form of Yanko (Perez, from Queen Margot and The Crow), a buff Russian cutie who's the sole survivor of a wrecked immigrant ship. Though Yanko is scorned by most of the xenophobic villagers to an even greater degree than Amy, he quickly becomes the object of a tense rivalry between Amy and Dr. Kennedy (McKellen, whose poignantly suggestive acting is the single best thing about this film), a cultured widower whose affection for the studly foreigner contains more than a whiff of suppressed homoerotic bouquet. But as we soon discover, neither of these love relationships is the real point of Swept From the Sea. Though the romantic encounters between Amy and Yanko are plenty torrid, they're few and brief. The story's larger theme, true to Conrad's design, proves to be the human tendency to arbitrarily designate certain of our number as The Other and to grossly -- sometimes disastrously -- misunderstand them. Kidron's well-handled denouement drives this point home with legitimately tragic force. It's good stuff, but unfortunately it's inconsistent in tone with both the movie's lushly romantic opening scenes, and with the way it's being marketed. By trying to impose an ill-fitting stylistic grandeur on a story that ultimately trades at least as much on ideas as flamboyant emotion, Kidron probably will end up disappointing both the Conrad purists in her audience and the romance-movie aficionados.