By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen
Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman
Dust/Gunpowder & Sky
No doubt we’ll be seeing a number of genre movies inspired by the current pandemic in the coming months and years; a couple of exploitative examples have already been announced or released. But the best films like this can be the ones whose relevance is accidental, like SEA FEVER, which sees VOD/digital release today off a wave of positive fest buzz over the past year, and proves startlingly well-timed given what’s going on in the world today. But it has more than timeliness on its side.
Among its many virtues is a nuanced lead performance by Hermione Corfield as Siobhán, a marine biology grad student who’s a skilled scientist and not much of a people person. She’s reluctantly taking a research trip to look for biological anomalies during an excursion out to sea by the fishing trawler Niamh Cinn Óir, and some of the crew aren’t overly thrilled to have her aboard either, believing an old superstition that having a redhead like Siobhán aboard is bad luck. And they certainly don’t need any more; skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott) is having trouble paying his crew, and he and his wife Freya (Connie Nielsen) engage in a brief prayer as they depart to the open ocean. Through such integrations of belief and ritual, writer/director Neasa Hardiman establishes the little world of the Niamh Cinn Óir, populated by finely drawn characters who are well-acted down the line.
As the voyage continues, Siobhán continues to sit apart from the rest of the group literally and figuratively, occasionally making an inappropriate comment—and when they spot whales off the deck, only she believes it’s a bad sign. Sure enough, they soon hit something huge that leaves them stranded on the water, but it turns out not to be any kind of animal even Siobhán is familiar with. The encounter leaves the Niamh Cinn Óir contaminated with a sickness that, among everyone on board, Siobhán is uniquely qualified to deal with, yet even as her expertise allows her to bond with her shipmates, the spreading contagion threatens to separate them in the worst way.
Unlike some filmmakers dealing with virulent plagues, Hardiman isn’t after a gross-out-fest here—though the first specific outbreak is genuinely horrifying—and while unearthly beings are involved, SEA FEVER isn’t really a creature feature either. (The glimpses we get of these organisms are as beautiful as they are threatening.) The movie is more about the human reactions to their situation—trapped together, many miles from a safe port—and how they matter-of-factly try to solve the infection problem. Siobhán insists they need to quarantine themselves, while others quite reasonably want to tend to those who have fallen ill, and she believes they can’t attempt a return home before they can assure they won’t spread the sickness. A lot of the dialogue in the second half of SEA FEVER rings very familiar under today’s circumstances, and it would be just as compelling at any time, as Hardiman and her cast build the drama with naturalistic plausibility that lends a very involving edge to their desperation.
Even as her script is inadvertently as up-to-date as a horror film can be, she’s also working time-tested territory here, with particular echoes of John Carpenter’s THE THING, as when the crew discovers and a few of them investigate another boat that has already been struck by the contagion. Hardiman gets the combination of classic themes of paranoia under unnatural circumstances and more modern anxieties just right, and has captained a first-rate craft team, with special kudos due to production designer Ray Ball for his very lived-in-looking below-decks sets. SEA FEVER is another solid outing by Ireland’s dependable fright factory Fantastic Films and producers Brendan McCarthy and John McDonnell (VIVARIUM, THE HALLOW, LET US PREY), and a trip well worth taking.