‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ Review: Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg in a Stubbornly Lifeless Drama

The plasticity of memory is a familiar dramatic subject, the stuff of sci-fi tentpoles (Total Recall), indie thrillers (Memento) and genre hybrids (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). On a more everyday level, that neural malleability suggests something fragile and vulnerable. For the two couples at the center of The Almond and the Seahorse, both affected by traumatic brain injury, there’s nothing theoretical about being stuck in a broken memory loop — it’s a sad and draining reality. How do you maintain a relationship with someone whose memory of your life together is fractured, erratic, deteriorating? That’s the painful challenge facing Sarah and Toni, characters played, respectively, by Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Apparently her first non-comedic big-screen role was life-changing for Wilson — a paradox given that the drama onscreen comes to life only in fits and starts. An adaptation of Kaite O’Reilly’s play by Celyn Jones and the playwright, the film unfolds episodically, and it often feels like a dramatized lesson on BTI — a handsomely shot lesson, to be sure; the DP is Tom Stern, the accomplished cinematographer and frequent collaborator of Clint Eastwood. Stern directed the movie as well, along with Jones, who also plays one of the central characters. There are a few striking images — the feature is set and was shot in the Liverpool/Merseyside area of England — and the fascinating faces of Gainsbourg, Wilson and Trine Dyrholm are captured in a loving light. The story, though, feels told rather than explored, keeping all the characters at arm’s length for most of the running time.

The Almond and the Seahorse

The Bottom Line

Less than memorable.

Release date: Friday, Dec. 16
Cast: Rebel Wilson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Trine Dyrholm, Celyn Jones, Meera Syal, Alice Lowe
Directors: Celyn Jones, Tom Stern
Screenwriters: Celyn Jones, Kaite O’Reilly; based on the play by Kaite O’Reilly

1 hour 36 minutes

The film’s title, as Wilson’s Sarah explains, refers to the amygdala and the hippocampus, parts of the brain crucial to making and retaining memories. Her husband, Joe (Jones), and Toni’s wife, Gwen (Dyrholm), each suffer from a debilitating form of amnesia, his the result of surgery and hers caused by a car accident. They don’t know each other, and it isn’t until more than halfway through the movie that their spouses meet, at a local hospital specializing in TBI. (Whether it’s affordable to any Brit through the NHS isn’t clear, but the uncrowded and well-appointed facility might look like some kind of dream to an American viewer.)

Treating patients and withstanding the ire and frustration of their significant others, the head of the hospital, Dr. Falmer (Meera Syal), offers such stilted observations as “This silent epidemic isn’t going anywhere” and such ungrammatical ones as “No brain is the same.” Joe and Gwen are returning to her care for a few days of observation; their wives have each reached a crisis point in trying to navigate a worsening sense of dislocation, requiring constant reorientation to fill in agonizing gaps in what should be a shared history — in essence, starting almost from scratch over and over. Sarah tries a new, more aggressive tack, one that involves a beeper and lists and a schedule and, for the audience’s benefit at least as much as Joe’s, an audiotape explaining his situation.

When we first see Sarah, she’s dancing and drinking alone, as if in single-person mode. Then she’s calling a help line about Joe. Whatever he did for a living before he was injured, he’s now an unemployable overgrown child, by turns playful and petulant, his blank cheer sometimes giving way to grown-up torment as he tries to sort out why his wife looks older than he remembers her to be.

Whether we believe it or not, the symbolism of Sarah’s work is clear: She’s an archeologist who spends her days reconstructing human skeletons — piecing together fragments. Ditto for Toni, an architect who gave up her work building things soon after the crash 15 years earlier that upended her life with Gwen, a musician.

When Sarah and Toni meet, there’s a bracing terseness to their first exchange. From that welcome jolt, the relationship jumps to an awkward morning after and then a getting-to-know-you montage, complete with walks on the beach. But it’s a wintry beach, evocatively lensed by Stern, and also the setting for the strongest moment in the film, when Gwen encounters one of the cast iron figures in an art installation (Antony Gormley’s Another Place). In Dyrholm’s wordless reaction, and the tenderness that she and Gainsbourg convey, the feature reaches depths it strains for elsewhere.

The moment is undercut, though, by a song, part of a score by Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals, that can be lovely but too often indulges in overt nudges toward lament or cheer (matching the bright interiors that production designer Gini Godwin brings to Joe and Sarah’s home). The film’s tone drifts, anchored in moments by the actors. As a hospital employee, Patrick Elue shares a brief, terrific scene with Dyrholm revolving around her cello, and Alice Lowe makes an impression as Sarah’s practical, plainspoken sister-in-law; their give-and-take has a lived-in immediacy.

Wilson’s first screen departure from broad-strokes comedy reveals a grounded presence; there’s no doubt that she could hold her own in other dramatic ventures. This one, though, for all its sympathy and hope, proceeds by such jagged leaps that it falls short of the intended emotional impact. Perhaps those leaps are meant to mirror the struggles of Joe and Gwen, but something is lost in the narrative gaps.

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