Albatross: Just Call Her Emilia Bad-Elia

Downton Abbey's Lady Sybil portrays anything but a lady in this coming of age tale.

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Liam Daniel / IFC Films

Jessica Brown Findlay and Felicity Jones

Should you believe movies like the pleasant but unexceptional Albatross, a key rite of passage for shy, bookish young women involves meeting up with a peer who lacks any boundaries or inhibitions. These wild child types range from Desperately Seeking Susans to Poison Ivies. They tend to talk tough, impudently snap their gum and are always casually stripping in front of the modest heroine. In the extreme, they think nothing of sleeping with her father. This bad girl’s tricks rarely vary; for instance, once she turns up wearing the good girl’s clothes, it won’t be long before someone gets at least their feelings hurt. This predictable troublemaker tends to the tedious, and the stereotype is the real albatross in Albatross.

Seventeen year-old Emilia Conan Doyle (Jessica Brown Findlay) struts around the Isle of Man, a picturesque island plunked between Northern Ireland and Scotland, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I Put Out.” (The shirt doesn’t lie.) She lives with grandparents — her father disappeared, her mother killed herself — and the movie’s most touching scenes involve this ancient, fragile couple. Sweet demented Granny keeps mistaking Emilia for her mother, Granddad seems like a disapproving grump but proves to care far more about Emilia than she expects. She doesn’t have much in the way of friends until she takes a part time job as a maid at Cliff House and meets Oxford-bound Beth (Like Crazy‘s Felicity Jones) whose family owns and operates the inn.

(MORE: Read Mary Pols’ Review of Like Crazy)

Their relationship is a teasing one. Emilia ribs mousey Beth and Beth gazes adoringly at her.  She’s assertive, daring, all the things that Beth isn’t. She’s also obnoxious and prone to challenging authority at the hotel and a restaurant where she waitresses. Brown Findlay, known to fans of Downton Abbey as Lady Sybil, is fetching and has a honeyed, seductive voice but no matter how captivating she is, there’s no way any boss would tolerate her sass. The movie assigns this character a power over others, but doesn’t illuminate its source or offer a proper defense of it — such a power could only exist if all other characters were doormats. It’s unreasonable to expect us to believe that Beth’s mother (Julia Ormond), a vigorous shrew, wouldn’t give Emilia her walking papers after a day.

Her sexual power however, is never in question. The attraction between Emilia and Beth’s father Jonathan (Sebastian Koch) is wrong but still makes plenty of sense. Compared to the island boys she’s used to, he’s George Clooney. Compared to his aging, bitter wife, she’s an audacious tonic, a willing Lolita.  She teases him, mocks his stalled writing career – an early bestseller centered around the enchantments of the Cliff House and was followed by a string of flops – and flirts brazenly with him in front of his wife (poor Ormond, reduced to playing the desperate to seem young shrew when a couple of decades ago, she was positioned as the next Audrey Hepburn). Jonathan, who lights up like a candle in Emilia’s presence, offers to help her edit the novel she claims to be writing, an invitation to his attic lair right up there with “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Koch (The Lives of Others) succeeds in making Jonathan bearable by conveying his raft of middle-aged insecurities and vulnerabilities. Jonathan’s lowest moment involves a “P”-themed birthday party for Beth’s little sister. He’s dressed as a pope and Emilia as Princess Leia, they duck into a broom closet. It’s sad and creepy but director Niall MacCormick also makes it a little funny.

That’s in keeping with the film’s underlying confusion about whether it wants to be briskly amusing (its lively, jazzy score feels like something that ought to be accompanying a comedy) or a serious coming of age story about Emilia recognizing and moving past her demons. The similarities between it and the Isle of Wight-set 2001 film Me Without You, which featured the very young Michelle Williams as the good girl and Anna Friel as the naughty minx, are uncanny. In both cases, the performances are compelling (although Jones is underused) but the thin narrative is less instructive of the strange way female friendships operate than of the way stories get recycled. Girls, they’re either naughty or nice! Madonnas or whores!  If you want to see a great film about screwed up relationships between women, try Persona, All About Eve or Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Albatross looks like a scrawny sparrow next to them.

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