As Cap’n Reynolds knows, the albatross was the central figure in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In life, the albatross was a good omen. By killing it, the main character brings a curse down upon his ship, and his mates force him to wear the dead bird around his neck until they all end up dying. (It goes without saying that if Coleridge had any aspirations to write children’s books, they were short-lived.) Since then, the albatross has become symbolic of a burden or of bad luck.
In Albatross, a 2011 movie, the bird is an intelligent but rebellious 17-year-old girl, and things start to go awry when she starts fucking her best friend’s father.
Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame breaks well away from that high-society role as she inhabits the main character, Emelia Conan Doyle. Being the descendant of the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Emelia believes she too will become a great author, but the suicide of her mother and the increasing dementia of her grandmother have tossed her off the rails. More sexy troublemaker than anything as the film begins, Emelia stumbles into the already-fractious home of the Fischer family. Young Beth (Felicity Jones) immediately latches onto the independent and confident Emelia, but her has-been author father Jonathan (Sebastian Koch) also takes a shine to the firebrand. In the guise of “teaching her to write,” Jonathan and Emelia begin an awkward, unproductive affair that inevitably shatters the whole family. Multiple metaphorical albatrosses are met, killed, carried, and overcome along the way.
It is no classic film, by any means. It’s an independent film and it reeks of it. It is achingly, desperately independent with pregnant pauses, dramatic posing, “clever” musical choices, screaming at the ocean, even the quirky little girl who says out loud what everyone is thinking. It’s trying too hard, and most of the cast is simply not up to the task. Sebastian Koch especially turns in a smirky performance that undermines both the illicit romance, and the devastating aftermath. His wife is played by Julia Ormond, and she plays essentially the same character she did in the last season of Mad Men, a bitter, disillusioned shrew that tears down everyone around her…except there’s even less depth here.
The gorgeous Jessica Brown Findlay, however, is the star of the show, and I do mean star. Some actors never escape period or genre typecasting, but Findlay absolutely destroys the notion that she’s a one-trick pony. At Emelia’s cocky, sarcastic best, she shines with life and wisdom beyond her years, and at her despairing, vulnerable worst, she is every bit the lost, broken teenager. Findlay’s performance elevates Albatross well, well beyond its meager parts and I recommend it solely because of her.
If Findlay doesn’t become a seriously famous person, the system is broken, the terrorists have won, and we’ll all certainly be out of luck.