TIFF ’19: Get Swept Away by ‘Sea Fever’

The ocean is a vast, unknown, and frankly terrifying place. It is home to massive whales and other creatures that have adapted to huge amounts of pressure and total darkness. Some of the weirdest animals on Earth can be found in the ocean, but, there’s so much we still don’t know about it. More than 80% of the ocean has not been explored, so who knows what lurks beneath the waves? Director Neasa Hardiman takes that aura of mystery to create her latest feature film, Sea Fever, an eco-thriller that reflects on aquatic possibilities as well as the effects human beings continue to have on ocean life. 

Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) is a PhD student who is most comfortable in the lab, surrounded by specimens, books, and numbers. But, her professor forces her to board a fishing boat to do field research, which means mingling with a crew of fishermen. Despite her protests, she ends up on the trawler captained by Freya (Bonnie Corfield) and her husband, Gerard (Dougray Scott). While Siobhan tries to connect with the crew, Freya and Gerard battle financial problems that could lead to them losing their boat. Despite advisories from the Coast Guard to avoid a certain part of the ocean, Gerard sets a course right through the restricted area due to high volumes of fish.

They soon find out why the area was restricted when a massive tentacled creature attaches itself to the boat and begins seeping parasitic creatures into the interior. As the parasites begin claiming the lives of the crew, Siobhan must tap into her scientific knowledge to find a solution. However, her methodical thinking often gets in the way and conflicts with the most emotional reasoning of those around. Sea Fever is simultaneously a story about man vs. nature and man vs. man as everyone so desperately clings to the idea of survival.

Diversity is at the core of Sea Fever. Men and women both run the ship, immigrants make up a good portion of the crew, and all that matters is how hard you work. There are no digs about gender or ethnicity. No sexism or racism runs rampant among the small crew. This is first and foremost a family who take care of each other. In this diversity, though, women take power and take control of any situation. Whether it is Siobhan or Freya, when something goes wrong, they are the ones to step up and develop some sort of plan. They are never shamed or ridiculed; rather, they are listened to and respected. The family of this ship is a matriarchy, where women rule with logic and men fall into their place.

Siobhan’s character, played beautifully by Corfield, is perhaps the most complex as she takes center stage throughout the narrative. She at first seems to be the stereotypical stoic scientist who pops up to be a party pooper or robotic entity that spits out data that no one can understand. She is cold and distant, happier to read her textbook than join the crew dinner. However, after the first crew member’s death, Siobhan transforms. She is shown sobbing alone, experiencing an extreme emotion; she is not the robot that everyone thinks she is. She just takes a little longer to show it. Corfield creates a nuanced character that you may not like at first but grows on you as the narrative progresses. Not all female characters need to be likable right away; they can experience emotional growth and Hardiman lets Siobhan do just that. 

Paired with strong performances is the gorgeous cinematography of the ocean. Cinematographer Ruairí O’Brien gives the ocean a personality, portraying it as an entity that pulsates with life. Porpoises play in the waves, there are fish aplenty, and at night the water sparkles with bioluminescence. But the ocean also has a giant secret, one that has numerous tentacles and carries a nasty parasite. O’Brien is able to create both an awe and fear of the watery depths with gorgeous underwater shots of blue-green, as well as wide shots of the vast aquatic landscape that stretches in front of the bow. 

While Sea Fever borrows some ideas from previous parasite versus crew films such as Alien and The Thing, Hardiman creates an original narrative that respects the ocean, and highlights the genuine consequences of taking it for granted. Short moments of body horror are all the more effective in their brevity, focusing on their emotional effects on the rest of the crew rather than the spectacle. Hardiman strikes a balance between the political, the horrifying, and the beautiful in Sea Fever. It is appreciative of the ocean’s power, in awe of its beauty, and fearful of its innumerable possibilities. Parasites aside, Sea Fever will make you fall in love with the ocean all over again. 

Read Mary Beth’s interview with Sea Fever’s director Neasa Hardiman.

You may check out the rest of our TIFF’ 19 coverage here.

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