NYFF Film Review: ‘Sea Sorrow’ Has Empathy But Lacks A Pulse

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2017 New York Film Festival: Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave makes her directorial debut with “Sea Sorrow,” a documentary that she hopes comes across as an impassioned please for human rights. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, this comes across as little more than a glorified PSA. With lackluster editing, a sense of pretentiousness, and sloth like pacing, the doc struggles to connect. The subject matter is inherently compelling, but Redgrave struggles to bring you into the fold. The New York Film Festival was lucky to get Redgrave and her first crack behind the camera at the fest. It’s just a shame that her debut isn’t up to snuff.

Redgrave has long been a campaigner for this cause (refugees), so it’s not surprising that she entered her medium to raise awareness. Still, that doesn’t inherently make something a quality film. This doc lacks focus, dulling her message intensely. It’s clear she wants to enrage/recruit you into helping spur government action, but the method is sloppy. She’s preaching to the converted, but even the converted will likely see that this is a flawed work.

This documentary focuses in on the refugee crisis going on in Europe. Specifically, her interest is in the children caught up in it all. Redgrave herself addresses the camera, as well as having political Alfred Dubs do so as well. Time after time, she implores British officials to admit these kids into the country. Her argument is that the longer they’re stuck in places like Greece, the more likely they are to get caught up in crime and prostitution. It’s an admirable goal. Unfortunately, her technique is lacking and the film never comes close to reaching you.

As a filmmaker, Redgrave indulges too often in detours from the material she clearly holds so dearly. On multiple occasions, she has actors, including Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson, recite Shakespeare. “Sea Sorrow” would have been barely feature length without them, but they add nothing to the proceedings. In fact, it comes off as highfalutin and pretentious in a way that torpedoes the natural emotion of it all. Seeing the crisis is enough. Instead of buoying the tragedy, these artistic choices blunt and dull it. Fiennes’ reading of “The Tempest” at the end literally stops things dead in their tracks.

The doc frankly needed to either be extended with a wider scope or truncated down into a short film. At its current 72-minute length, it’s just deeply unsatisfying. “Sea Sorrow” never gives you an entry point. Redgrave simply assumes that what’s important to her will also be important to you. She’s right in that it’s an important crisis, but she’s unable to make a film that gives a compelling reason for its existence. When she states that originally it was designed to play at charity events, it makes perfect sense. It’s missing that added ingredient that makes a documentary cinematic. Especially since this is an important issue that could use the spotlight, this is doubly disappointing to witness.

NYFF occasionally has movies that just don’t work, and unfortunately, that’s what we have here with “Sea Sorrow”. Redgrave puts her heart and soul into the production, yet sadly that’s not enough. There’s no pleasure in hammering home this point, but her passion is simply not reflected in the work. This documentary is middling at best and showcases little talent for filmmaking on her part. Redgrave should certainly try again, though hopefully next time the formula will be different. Here at the New York Film Festival, she’s made her case for change. Hopefully, despite the lack of success in the movie, people listen and push for change.

“Sea Sorrow” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 8 and currently has no release date scheduled.

GRADE: (★★)