REVIEW: The Almond and the Seahorse (2022)

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So too, sadly, is the road to bad movies.

I honestly do not believe anybody sets out to make a bad movie. Even deliberately silly direct-to-streaming efforts made famous by Sharknado and the like are made with a particular tone and style in mind, and will get judged based upon their own specific criteria. Even the smallest of independent films require a number of people to collaborate, and try to make the best work that they possibly can. As a critic or reviewer, it is always worth keeping that in mind. Nothing gathers readers like a bitchy hit piece, and while there can be a mean-spirited entertainment value in making cruel jokes at a poor film’s expense there is also a possibility that the real people who made the film might one day read that mockery.

These thoughts came to mind while watching The Almond and the Seahorse, a 2022 British drama directed by Celyn Jones and Tom Stern. It focuses on the strain and heartbreak of developing an acquired brain injury or disorder, or ABI, and of caring for someone who has one. It addresses its subject matter with accuracy, intelligence, and great sensitivity. That is worth appreciating. I have an ABI myself, and care for someone else with one, and in this regard I can confirm that what Jones and Stern present here is valuable and laudable. Sadly the film itself, as a work of drama, is honestly terrible.

As always, the downfall is in the screenplay – by Jones and playwright Kaite O’Reilly. The dialogue is wooden and indulgent with clichés. It struggles to find naturalistic ways to explain backstory and medical information. It is terribly inconsistent with its characters, showing flashes of depth and vitality in one moment and then feeling moribund and superficial in the next. There are moments of excellence, that spark here and there for a minute or two at a time, but without fail it all slides back in-between. Some of the most dramatically interesting elements of the story take place off-screen between an underwhelming climax and a needlessly trite denouement. The direction is not actively poor, but it is very formulaic. There is a constant mild sense of being lectured at.

Oddly, there is a truly inspired cast who valiantly fight the material. Most attention will probably fall on Rebel Wilson, whose career to this point has been dominated by broad comedy. This is the first dramatic performance I have seen her give, and she demonstrates a wonderfully naturalistic talent for it. Despite the failure of this particular film, I desperately hope she continues working the genre. Wilson plays Sarah, whose husband Joe (Celyn Jones playing triple duty as actor as well as writer and director) is experiencing growing dementia as a result of a brain tumour and subsequent surgery. Their story is mirrored by a lesbian couple, Toni (an effective Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Gwen (Trine Dyrholm). Gwen sustained a neurological injury in a car crash, and every morning for 15 years has woken without any memory of the intervening time. It is a more effective situation, dramatically speaking, and results in most of the film’s best scenes. Dyrholm’s performance is excellent, particularly in a conversation over a cello with a nurse (Patrick Elue).

I watched The Almond and the Seahorse (the title gets explained) with the best of hopes for it. It covers important territory and sparks worthwhile discussions. That the film itself flounders and fails is hugely disappointing. No one aims to make bad movies – my greatest hope is that those involved get a chance to try again with a future project.

The Almond and the Seahorse is currently streaming on Paramount+.

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