Thursday, 23 July 2015

FILM REVIEW: Song Of The Sea

The price of putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few is exquisitely illustrated in Tomm Moore's spectacular animated film

An intimately affecting Close Encounter beneath and above the ocean waves, Tomm Moore's spectacular Song Of The Sea is not so much about the mysterious and interesting creatures within it, but rather how people of all ages adapt, or attempt to adapt, in the presence of the unexpected. It's another undisputed triumph for Newry-born Moore, whose Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon earned an Oscar nomination for attuning their hand-drawn talents to the secret of the legendary Book Of Kells in the late noughties.

They are equally, if not more, at home with the look, feel and most importantly the heart of their characters in this scenario; the results, which secured another Oscar nomination, are simply astounding, touching on the real world-fantasy world parallels of a Pan's Labyrinth and the soulful, sensitive exploratory themes of a Where The Wild Things Are, while always ringing fresh and true.

It's late 1980s Ireland, and lighthouse keeper Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is still reeling from the disappearance of his wife Bronach (voiced by Lisa Hannigan) who strangely vanished after giving birth to their now mute, six-year-old daughter Saoirse. Her brother Ben (voiced by David Rawle), cannot cope with the attention his little sister is receiving, and Moore does a fine job of highlighting why Ben is unwilling and unable to accept Saoirse as part of the family. Because her arrival coincided with their mother's departure and took the focus away from Ben, he has become consumed by bitterness.

When he pushes Saoirse's face into her birthday cake before she has even had a chance to blow out the candles, it is a painful reminder of how jealousy and rigidity can damage one's childhood. And Ben's rigidity will be tested to the full when he and Saoirse are forced to move to Dublin with their not-very-fun-loving grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) whose appearance and presence are a very clear reflection of what's to come.

For Saoirse, like her mother, is a white Selkie: a human over water but a seal under it. Her discovery of a white sealskin coat, and her initial dive into the sea, allows her to realise her true self and opens up numerous narrative and thematic strands. Prior to her find, Ben has frightened her by telling her a scary, if true, story: yet the very moment he sees how terrified Saoirse is, he immediately apologises. He must surely realise by this stage that the silent Saoirse cares for him, but he doesn't want to admit any hint of a connection, lest he be seen as weak. Because he is so young the true value of family hood has not yet dawned on him, although it will.

It already weighs heavily on Conor, and that is why he is so willing to discard the magical coat and singing shell bequeathed to his children by their mother. Never mind the excitement that these items may bring; Conor has already lost one woman in his life to the sea, and he's not going to lose another. Hence his reluctant decision to separate Ben and Saoirse from the lighthouse and the family dog, Cu. But the shell remains in Ben's hand, and it is here where the adventure truly begins.

Without going into too many specifics, Song Of The Sea follows the tried and trusted path of the best family movies, but in a unique manner. Ben learns to accept Saoirse, Conor finally lays the memory of his lost love to rest, and Granny learns not to be so set in her ways. At its core, the film centres around the restoration of a family; beyond that, it is about characters battling their inner and outer demons and accepting new cultures and challenges. It is told with grace, with skill, without melodrama, and within a beautifully animated backdrop which I haven't even mentioned yet! How powerful must a film be if story and character dwarf the visuals themselves?

And it is not as if these visuals aren't fascinating in their own right. Moore's seemingly two-dimensional strokes are full of life and invention, giving the art a Celtic and childlike lilt that is fully in line with the tone and the music of the film. When the journey from the family home to Dublin is briefly depicted on a childlike "map", the gap between the child's and the adult's perception of the real world is signified. When Saoirse puts on her little white coat, we feel the effect. It's hardly heresy to state that Moore's work feels more three-dimensional than anything recently put out by Pixar or Disney.

I still don't believe I've wholly done justice to Moore's filmmaking here. I love that he set the film during the 1980s, where technology was not so capable of intervening as a means of communication. I love that the crux of the film happens on Hallowe'en, where macabre sights, real or fake, are commonplace, allowing Ben and Saoirse's adventure to blend in with their surroundings. And then there's the metaphor of stone, both as a loss of emotion and a way of handling pain; in the wrong hands, it could feel hugely unsubtle, but here, it is exquisitely illustrated.

But it is arguably Song Of The Sea's denouement (spoiler warning) which raises the most interesting and troubling issue: is one's desire to reunite a family at the expense of another's desires selfless, or selfish? It is arguably a bit of both. How easy it is for we fantasy loving viewers to encourage little Saoirse to don her white coat and continue to swim around a magical, mystical undersea world of happy seals, dancing fairies and beautiful music. Adventure, excitement and spectacular visuals cannot help but tantalise the audience.

Yet there is a marked difference between what one wants and what must be. And with that in mind, Bronach's final course of action is both the logical and human thing to do: she remains a Selkie while choosing not to deny the no-longer-silent Saoirse the upbringing that she now wants and the rest of her on shore family have clearly earned. (No coincidence that Saoirse's first word is "Ben".) That, to me, is what Song Of The Sea truly highlights: the price of putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, regardless of who is the real "many" and who is the real "few".

The late Leonard Nimoy would be proud.