As far as I know, there’s not a Sherlock Holmes mystery that features an albatross, but director Niall MacCormick and screenwriter Tamzin Rafn manage to squeeze both portentous figures into their feature film debut. And that may signal part of the problem with this relatively breezy coming-of-age meets mid-life-crisis film: the filmmakers insist on a lot of elements that never feel quite germane to the story.
The set-up is simple enough. Emilia (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) is a self-styled bad girl, all big-earrings and leather jacket and provocative T-shirts (the scoopnecked one emblazoned with I PUT OUT over the screen print of a girl firefighter is the pivotal article) . She’s been expelled from school and takes a job cleaning rooms at an inn in the small seaside English town where she’s spent the first 17 years of her life.
The inn is The House on the Cliff, a landmark immortalized some decades ago in a best-selling novel written by its proprietor. But despite his disheveled, tweedy good looks that are code for “writer”, 40-something Jonathan Fischer (Sebastian Koch) hasn’t managed to write anything since that first success. Instead, he “procrasturbates” (as Emilia puts it) in a garret room, exchanges bitter accusations with his resentful wife (Julia Ormond, doing her best shrew), and is a largely absent father to his two daughters.
One of those daughters is the obedient Beth (Felicity Jones), who is counting on a stellar score on her A-levels to get her into Oxford and away from her dysfunctional family. The disparity between the two girls is amply underscored from the opening credits, as the camera cuts between Emilia being taken into police custody for some minor prank and Beth at her desk, furiously reviewing flashcards for a chemistry exam.
The wheels of the plot are set in motion when the father, who is just waiting for a nudge off that Cliff of his, takes an interest in Emilia that is not solely paternal — just as his daughter finds both a friend and alternative role model in the inn’s brashly charming new cleaning lady. Emilia, then, becomes the potentially volatile tie between a father and daughter who otherwise see each other solely in terms of the familial roles they play.
As for Emilia, who is undoubtedly the story’s catalyst, her ballast in life has been the idea that she is a direct descendent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: when she introduces herself, she is always the first to point out her surname and confirm that it is, yes, that Conan Doyle. Each time she does this, we don’t know whether to squirm for her or for the filmmakers; the plot point seems both so juvenile and, actually, so typical of a certain kind of teenage girl. (Full disclosure: I may have been that kind of teenage girl.)
Emilia, we learn soon enough, wants to be a writer. Thus far, she’s only dabbled; we’re shown her handwritten cache of notebook pages. But together with her surname and the claim that she’s writing a novel, she’s granted herself something outside of the shack where she lives with her two ostensibly senile grandparents. The character (who’s so predictably rebellious that she might have been plucked from the outtakes of (Grease() is saved by Findlay, who delivers her aspersions and guffaws with plucky charm.
Thus the story consists of two intersecting lines: one in which Jonathan’s offer to mentor Emilia slides into an inevitable affair, and the other in which Beth and Emilia come to be something like friends. It’s a dynamic that’s not without its interesting moments, given that Beth, while too naïve to notice what’s between her father and her friend, does take several stabs at emulating the cheeky young woman whom her father clearly favors. However, the effect of Emilia on Beth and Jonathan — and vice versa — is ultimately a little too neat. (They’ve all been changed, as the lyrics to the song playing over the closing scene make sure we know.) But to be fair, the filmmakers very gently hew to recognizable formula in a way that suggests they’re not out to deliver anything greater than cinematic comfort food.
And the albatross? If I told you it’s the title of the novel that Emilia eventually writes, after which she bicycles triumphantly through the seaside streets with the manuscript resting in the oversized basket of her bike, would you be more or less inclined to rent the DVD? Aside from a few wheeling shots of seabirds overhead, there’s no real relevance in the figure of speech that Emilia at last uses to describe both the weight of the Conan Doyle name she carries and the debilitating success of Jonathan’s first and only novel. One might even make the case that the film could do very well without mention of that fabled bird at all. The specter of Sherlock Holmes is already doing quite a bit of forced labor, in which both coming of age and midlife crisis amount to, er, solving the mystery of who you’ve become.
As for the DVD extras: they’re not a real selling point. About 15 minutes of separate interviews with the cast and crew don’t offer any particular insight into boilerplate questions of character, motivation, and creative vision. However, Jessica Brown Findlay is as charming an interview subject as the characters she typically plays. Following the interviews are five minutes’ footage of shooting the film; given that the shooting and directing follow pretty standard procedure, it’s probably not a must-see.