Published January 1, 1998
Swept from the Sea by Beeban Kidron is a ludicrously overblown adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, “Amy Foster.” Now the first and absolutely essential thing for you to know about Conrad’s Amy is that she was — how shall we say? — of the canine kind with regard to feminine pulchritude. Also stupid. Conrad refers to the “dullness” not only of her appearance but also of her intelligence, and to “the inertness of her mind.” Yet she was the beloved of the shipwrecked Ukrainian immigrant, Yanko, and together the two of them made as charming a couple as ever might have appeared to shame the bigoted and insular Kentish (Kidron and Co. make them Cornish) villagers among whom they had the misfortune to have to live. So whom do you suppose Hollywood, in its wisdom, might cast in the role of the unprepossessing maiden? Who else but the radiantly gorgeous Rachel Weisz? And her Yanko is the charming Vincent Perez who, for all his ostentatiously muddy rags and thick Slavic accent, looks as if he could have walked into any gentleman’s club in St. James’s and no questions asked.
At once this mistaken casting turns all the subsequent action of the film into nonsense. The hostility of the villagers never makes the slightest sense to us, and the blunting of their hatred’s force affects, in turn, our understanding of the dark secret of Amy’s birth — which is that her putative father is actually her brother and her putative grandfather her father. It is also a mystery why an otherwise competent writer like Conrad neglected to mention this secret, but the filmmakers have more than made up for his omission by making this psychosexual cat’s cradle the explanation for what would otherwise seem obscure. And then they pick up on the hint in the description of Yanko of Conrad’s Dr. Kennedy — namely that, unlike the “uncouth” and “leaden” English among whom he lived, he was “lithe, supple and long-limbed” — to give their film a homoerotic subtext. Accordingly, that prince of openly gay thespians, Sir Ian McKellan, is got in to play the doctor.
I don’t know. Maybe the story really is a homosexual tragedy, an ironic study of two social outsiders but reliable “breeders” managing themselves to exclude an ostensible insider like the doctor — who is thus the most socially outcast of the three. It just sounds suspiciously like a story for the 1990s instead of the 1890s. And it is in any case rendered incoherent by the Hollywood good looks of Yanko and his bride. Besides the secret of her birth (which must not be much of a secret), the only explanation offered in the film for the latter’s low social status is that as a child she refused to learn to read and write. Then she started to learn. Then she stopped. But she is clearly far from the dolt she is said to be in Conrad’s story, and Yanko is quite unnecessarily endowed with a genius for chess. Also, Joss Ackland and Kathy Bates as Mr and Miss Swaffer, Yanko’s patrons, are oddly irrelevant to this story, while the motivation of their kindness to the immigrant, that he saved Mr Swaffer’s grand-daughter from drowning, is omitted.
Perhaps Kidron thought that such a detail would have been too much a cliché. Yet we of the up-to-date, go-ahead 90s have our own clichés which are too seldom recognized as such by those who market movies on the basis of their resemblance to other movies. I wonder how long it will be before the sentimental reconciliation of gay and straight which ends his film, as well as the currently popular As Good as it Gets, becomes such a cliché? Maybe it already is one. If so, the most we can hope from it are occasional moments of unintentional humor, as when Dr. Kennedy is ostensibly admiring Yanko’s infant son while not-so-surreptitiously slavering over the father. Suddenly Yanko turns to him and says that he hopes the boy grows up to be just like him, the doctor. Kennedy modestly replies: “Like me? I’d certainly think twice about that.” McKellan is a fine actor, but somehow that line seemed particularly heartfelt.