The Almond and the Seahorse

David Cunningham

The title, The Almond and the Seahorse, refers to the shape of the parts of the human brain which allow people to create new memories. The film examines what happens to people who suffer Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and, as a result, have memory loss, become socially disinhibited, and have mood swings.

Archaeologist, Sarah (Rebel Wilson) has little in common with retired musician Toni (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives in the same neighbourhood, other than they both have partners who have suffered TBI. As the pressures of acting as caregivers mount Sarah and Toni turn to each other for comfort.

The film takes a conventional approach contrasting two people with TBI. Joe (Celyn Jones, a busy chap who also co-authored and co-directed the film) loses his short-term memory after the removal of a benign brain tumour, and so cannot remember any events after the operation and his memory may be deteriorating still further. Gwen (Trine Dyrholm) was injured in a car crash and cannot remember the last 15 years, so wakes up every morning horrified to see how she has aged.

The Almond and the Seahorse is concerned more with the impact of the symptoms upon the mental health of the two characters and their immediate families than the mundane day-to-day issue of coping with long-term mental illness. However, the approach taken creates an artificial, slightly polished atmosphere. The professions of the characters allow them to retire early or not suffer financially from the loss of a spouse’s income, when medical appointments are made a human being answers the telephone and no-one is left on a trolley in a hospital corridor.

The Almond and the Seahorse is based upon a play by Kaite O’Reilly but unlike The Father, which retained the theatrical device of showing the confusion caused by dementia by having multiple actors play one character, tries to disguise its theatrical origins. Co-directors Celyn Jones and Tom Stern open up the story with picturesque shots of parades through Liverpool or the Anthony Gormley sculptures on Crosby Beach. The pretty but restrained result causes a marked lack of drama to the extent when two of the characters end up in bed together it feels like a contrived attempt to perk up the narrative.

There are no unsympathetic characters in the film although Meera Syal’s Dr. Falmer, who articulates the arbitrary nature of life and the ease with which disaster can strike, seems a bit smug. In a neat touch Joe’s mother cannot understand why everyone is making a fuss about his health; failing to appreciate the reason he gets on so well with children is that his lack of inhibition means he is redressing to a child-like state. There is an underlying possibility of violence with Celyn Jones creating a burly man-child with a brooding nature and a short temper.

Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg get top billing but are stuck in the thankless roles of reacting to the deterioration of their partners. Trine Dyrholm captures the resigned but positive viewpoint of the film- that the only relief in such circumstances is to take pleasure in the moment rather than worry about the past or future- with a highly dignified performance.

Celyn Jones exploits his co-director responsibilities for a scene-stealing sequence showing the frightening and heart-breaking impact of the gradual erosion of mental capabilities. Alone in the house Joe lights one cigarette after another forgetting he was already smoking and then becomes baffled and upset by his wife’s absence as the smouldering fags suggest she is at home. Although prompted by written instructions to take his medication Joe becomes incapable of doing so as, by the time he has poured a drink of water, he has forgotten its purpose. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the film Joe takes his wife’s careful verbal summation of his condition as proof she, not he, has lost the plot.

The Almond and the Seahorse is a thoughtful examination of a powerful subject, yet the restrained and somewhat glossy approach reduces the drama and emotional impact of the film.

The Almond and the Seahorse will be in UK Cinemas from 10th May.

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