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Hafið (The Sea)

(2003) ** Unrated
109 min. distributer. Director: Gert de Graaff. Cast: Bart Klever, Rick de Leeuw, Don Duyns, Devia Strooker.

Despite being the winner of eight Icelandic Academy Awards, Hafið (The Sea) fails to generate much interest. This umpteenth variation on Shakepeare's King Lear might have worked if its melodrama had translated into fully fleshed-out characters and vivid performances, but instead we get only a flaccid tale of another royally screwed-up family.

Opening his film with his story's apocalyptic climax, Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik) does little to mitigate the film's icy middle. Patriarch Thordur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), owner of an Icelandic fishery, has called his children home to drop an emotional bomb on them after penning his memoirs (the film never explains why anyone would want to read the memoirs of a struggling fishmonger). One child, Ágúst (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), has reallocated his father's educational stipends to pursue a musical career, while failing to share his father's plan to install him as head of the family business.

Ágúst announces the film's intentions early: "Just wait until all the monsters crawl out from their hiding places." His sad-sack brother Haraldur plots with his harridan wife to wrest control from his father, while warming Ágúst's seat at the fishery. Their sister Ragnheidur (Gudrún S. Gísladóttir) also remains emotionally damaged by their father's insensitivity, turning to drink to compensate. Borderline incest also plays a part, with the widowed Thordur married to his sister-in-law and Ágúst weathering the affections of his own half-sister.

Based on a play by Olafur Haukur Símonarson, The Sea sometimes plays like a parody of Chekhov or Ibsen or Miller or O'Neill in its high-pitched theatricality, but the film's mostly soggy performances and busy plotting rob the proceedings of their scenery-chewing potential. Eyjólfsson lends gravitas as Thordur, but the film hinges on Guðnason, whose eventual aria is unconvincing, especially after an hour of lukewarm slow-burning. Most of the supporting players are solid, but the script gives them little to do but go through the motions and recite declamatory dialogue like "Women let men make fools of them, don't they?" and "You can't freeze love like a gutted fish," or worse, half-baked symbolism like "The weather's turning bad. The sea's getting rougher." Herdís Porvaldsdóttir fares best (and has the best lines) as the kid's harsh, no-nonsense grandma, the "fool" who tells the truth.

This Icelandic soap comments on disturbing global trends with its next-generation desensitized teen and numerous references to Coca-Cola, but in the context of the older generations' money-grubbing corruption, the social criticism diffuses to a general pessimism about human nature. Kormákur puts on a blue filter and shoots some nice scenery, but this off-kilter domestic drama comes off more stilted than stirring.

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