Yes, the title of Albatross is a metaphor. In fact, the eponymous bird shows up not as a figurative chokehold around the neck of simply one character, but at least three. Everyone has his or her burden in the film, but rather than convincingly communicate this fact in dramatic terms, director Niall MacCormick and screenwriter Tamzin Rafn fall back on a lame literary device to pound home the point.
It’s far from the only poor choice the filmmakers opt for in this misguided coming-of-age/unraveling-of-a-marriage drama, a movie that continually loses focus in its shift from one set of characters to another and falters on its inconsistent attitude to those same figures. Set at a seaside hotel on the English coast, the film does nothing to endorse Tolstoy’s (name-checked in the film) famous novel-opening maxim about unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. There’s nothing unique about the familial discontent that characterizes the hotel owning clan: There’s the blocked novelist Jonathan Fischer (Sebastian Koch), trapped by the decades-old success of his first novel; his unsatisfied wife Joa (Julia Ormond), who gave up her acting career years ago and now resents it; and their teenage daughter Beth (Felicity Jones), caught in between. Into the mix comes sassy 17-year-old cleaning lady Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay), whose prickly personality is evoked in a heavy stream of sarcastic comments and whose wildness is conveyed in an unfortunate scene where the underage teen buys alcohol by flashing her breasts at a pimply store clerk.
Before long, Emelia is befriending good girl Beth—taking her to parties, getting her laid and possibly pregnant—and fucking her father. But the filmmakers seem uncertain how to handle the ebbs and flows of the film’s interpersonal chemistry or how to regard its characters, most of whom tend toward the monstrous. Jonathan, a feckless would-be cad, is sufficiently chastised for his behavior, but he’s still let off easy despite his inability to evince not a single redeeming quality. Similarly, Emelia goes from being simply a bad, if highly intelligent, girl to a sympathetic character, but only because the film keeps insisting on her horrible backstory—dead parents, grandma with Alzheimer’s, class resentment. With the dramatic deck so heavily stacked toward dictating our attitudes toward the film’s characters, none of the resulting shifts of alliances feel anything like organic.
But beyond that, Albatross is simply a compendium of bad ideas. Whether it’s matching the obviousness of the titular metaphor with thuddingly literal-minded music choices (Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” punctuates a trip to, yes, Oxford), crafting credulity-straining sequences as when aspiring novelist Emelia claims one of the most famous opening sentences in literary history (The Great Gatsby) as her own and man-of-letters Jonathan is none the wiser, or making questionably positive use of a T-shirt that reads “I Put Out,” MacCormick’s film hasn’t got a clue. And the proof of this is that the movie’s moment of coming-of-age fruition turns on the physical transfer of the aforementioned tee and, with it, the sentiments included. Who knew that becoming a young woman meant nothing more than embracing one’s inner slut?