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At the heart of “My Sailor, My Love,” the English language debut from Finnish filmmaker Klaus Härö, is a prickly tale of familial love gone sour and romantic love found almost too late. Although it attempts to tackle the heavy theme of generational trauma, it too often forgoes the more insightful aspects of its family drama in favor of an overly trite twilight romance.
Härö opens his film at group therapy, where women open up to each other about their life traumas. When it’s time for Grace (Catherine Walker) to share, she clams up, unable to voice what has brought her to the group. The film then shifts to a sweeping tracking shot of coastal Ireland, following Grace’s car to an isolated home right on the seashore.
Here, we meet her cantankerous father, Howard (James Cosmo), a widowed sea captain who spends his days weaving and telling tall tales. It’s his birthday party, but Howard hasn’t even finished washing the dirty laundry he left in the sink. Her brothers arrive with tales of trips abroad but don’t bother to help Grace with the festivities. Howard even refuses to eat a slice of the elaborate chocolate cake Grace brought. It’s clear Grace’s traumas stem from the unhealthy dynamics at play in this splintered family.
Fed up with his mess, Grace posts an ad at the local pub for a housekeeper, almost immediately hiring the gregarious older woman Annie (Bríd Brennan). When Annie cooks and cleans and chats about her grandkids, the gruff Howard insults her, and she leaves. Only to, of course, be wooed back by Howard’s apology and a bouquet of flowers.
The rest of the film cuts back and forth between Grace’s disintegrating life as she loses her job and her husband and Howard and Annie’s burgeoning relationship. It’s the stuff of high melodrama but mostly played at a very muted pace. Grace and her husband have calm, cooled, collected fights rather than rage. Howard and Annie fall for each other through small, shared moments.
While this all sounds very mature, the execution, especially with the romance, sorely lacks in subtlety. At one point, while picking apples, Howard and Annie reach for the same apple, and their hands graze. There is no hint of irony in how this hackneyed moment is filmed or employed. Aside from a little bit of chemistry and his ability to make her grandkids laugh, it’s hard to see what Annie sees in Howard. In fact, both characters are developed with such broad strokes, their personalities and histories so vague, what depth they contain comes solely from what Cosmo and Brennan bring with their quietly calibrated performances.
Grace is at least given a much richer personal history, which is slowly teased out. At first, it seems she is just overprotective and controlling of her father’s life. Then, she appears jealous, as she reacts poorly to Howard’s relationship with Annie and the joy he seems to take in becoming part of Annie’s large, boisterous family. But eventually, we realize this growing tension between Grace and Howard stems from a lifetime of neglect and emotional abuse. Her pain from the kind of unique wounds that can only be inflicted by a parent on their child.
Walker has the most difficult role here. Without alienating the audience, she must show Grace’s hurt, especially her anger. She does this mostly through body language; her constricted breathing clearly holding back years of anguish. Early on, her clipped sentences cut off just when she says something in mixed company that would make her appear to be the bad guy. It’s a dance she’s practiced for years, a trick anyone in this kind of abusive familial relationship knows all too well. When she does slip and say a little too much, it’s like she’s snuffed out oxygen for everyone in the room. And yet, there’s always a little bit of love left, stinging as it sticks in the back of her throat.
"My Sailor, My Love" is at its best in these moments where it explores Grace’s pain—when it shows how it has poisoned her ability to relate to others, be it the other women in group therapy, her co-workers, her husband, or even herself.
Unfortunately, because it also wants to be about the healing power of romantic love, Grace’s more nuanced storyline is shelved for long periods in favor of the more clichéd romantic beats of Howard and Annie’s story. And while their story wraps up in as mawkish a way as can be, at least "My Sailor, My Love" knows the final emotional beat belongs to Grace. It’s just too bad the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to make the whole film about her story, too.
Now playing in theaters.
James Cosmo as Howard
Brid Brennan as Annie
Catherine Walker as Grace
Nora-Jane Noone as Kelly
Aidan O'Hare as Martin
Gina Costigan as Joyce
Molly McCann as Alison