Swept from the Sea

Swept from the Sea by Beeban Kidron is a ludicrously overblown
adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, “Amy Foster.” Now the first and
absolutely essential thing for you to know about Conrad’s Amy is that she
was — how shall we say? — of the canine kind with regard to feminine
pulchritude. Also stupid. Conrad refers to the “dullness” not only of her appearance
but also of her intelligence, and to “the inertness of her mind.” Yet she was the beloved
of the shipwrecked Ukrainian immigrant, Yanko, and together the two of them made
as charming a couple as ever might have appeared to shame the bigoted and
insular Kentish (Kidron and Co. make them Cornish) villagers among whom they
had the misfortune to have to live. So whom do you suppose Hollywood, in its
wisdom, might cast in the role of the unprepossessing maiden? Who else but the
radiantly gorgeous Rachel Weisz? And her Yanko is the charming Vincent Perez
who, for all his ostentatiously muddy rags and thick Slavic accent, looks as if
he could have walked into any gentleman’s club in St. James’s and no questions

At once this mistaken casting turns all the subsequent action of the film
into nonsense. The hostility of the villagers never makes the slightest sense to
us, and the blunting of their hatred’s force affects, in turn, our understanding
of the dark secret of Amy’s birth — which is that her putative father is
actually her brother and her putative grandfather her father. It is also a
mystery why an otherwise competent writer like Conrad neglected to mention this
secret, but the filmmakers have more than made up for his omission by making
this psychosexual cat’s cradle the explanation for what would otherwise seem
obscure. And then they pick up on the hint in the description of Yanko of
Conrad’s Dr. Kennedy — namely that, unlike the “uncouth” and “leaden”
English among whom he lived, he was “lithe, supple and long-limbed” — to
give their film a homoerotic subtext. Accordingly, that prince of openly gay
thespians, Sir Ian McKellan, is got in to play the doctor.

I don’t know. Maybe the story really is a homosexual tragedy, an ironic study
of two social outsiders but reliable “breeders” managing themselves to exclude
an ostensible insider like the doctor — who is thus the most socially
outcast of the three. It just sounds suspiciously like a story for the 1990s
instead of the 1890s. And it is in any case rendered incoherent by the Hollywood
good looks of Yanko and his bride. Besides the secret of her birth (which must
not be much of a secret), the only explanation offered in the film for the
latter’s low social status is that as a child she refused to learn to read and
write. Then she started to learn. Then she stopped. But she is clearly far from
the dolt she is said to be in Conrad’s story, and Yanko is quite unnecessarily
endowed with a genius for chess. Also, Joss Ackland and Kathy Bates as Mr and
Miss Swaffer, Yanko’s patrons, are oddly irrelevant to this story, while the
motivation of their kindness to the immigrant, that he saved Mr Swaffer’s
grand-daughter from drowning, is omitted.

Perhaps Kidron thought that such a detail would have been too much a
cliché. Yet we of the up-to-date, go-ahead 90s have our own
clichés which are too seldom recognized as such by those who market
movies on the basis of their resemblance to other movies. I wonder how long it
will be before the sentimental reconciliation of gay and straight which ends his
film, as well as the currently popular As Good as it Gets, becomes such a
cliché? Maybe it already is one. If so, the most we can hope from it are
occasional moments of unintentional humor, as when Dr. Kennedy is ostensibly
admiring Yanko’s infant son while not-so-surreptitiously slavering over the
father. Suddenly Yanko turns to him and says that he hopes the boy grows up to
be just like him, the doctor. Kennedy modestly replies:
“Like me?
I’d certainly think twice about
that.” McKellan is a fine actor, but
somehow that line seemed particularly heartfelt.

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