Sea Fever, Irish director Neasa Hardiman’s feature film debut, begins with trademark horror calling cards: Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), an unpopular yet talented marine biology student, finds herself on a run-down fishing trawler as a research requirement. However, her Celtic-red locks immediately draw distrust from the rest of the tight-knit crew; lore warns having redheads aboard a ship brings bad luck.
The voyage of the trowler, named the Niamh Cinn-Oir, quickly descends into chaos after the ship’s captain, Gerard (Dougray Scott), is explicitly instructed by the Coast Guard to maneuver around an “exclusion zone.” He, along with co-captain and wife Freya (Connie Nielson), shake their fists at the order due to the high density of fish in the now off-limits zone. Without telling any of the crew or Freya, of course, Gerard takes the Niamh Cinn-Oir through the exclusion zone anyway. The trowler is soon hit with a force that stops it in its tracks, and the wood walls of the hull begin to ooze blue slime, prompting Siobhán to dive and remove what the crew expect to be some sort of barnacle. Underwater she encounters a many-tendriled bioluminescent creature tethered to the ship, reaching out with a blue, glowing arm as she frantically swims away.
While Siobhán lectures that coincidence should not be confused for causation, it turns out that the superstitious crew was right to expect danger. Sea Fever quickly morphs into part creature feature, part parasitic contagion piece, part eco-fatalist cautionary tale: a remarkably well-made indie debut, complete with a chilling atmosphere that never bores or comes off as schlocky.
Perhaps the film’s only downfall is the quasi-oppressive timeliness of the plot, making the moral dilemmas in the film appear flimsy when most viewers are dutifully following government-mandated “shelter in place” orders (a marginal few currently protesting for their inalienable right to die for a Baskin-Robbins). The trouble with projecting current pandemic anxieties onto Sea Fever is that—while the characters embody our current states of fear, anxiety, self-preservation and sacrifice—the large, bioluminescent entity at odds with the crew’s survival has just as much of a right to exist as the human protagonists. It is less the creature’s fault than it is Gerard’s, who willingly puts himself and the crew in danger. It’s true that Gerard weighs the cost of a catch big enough to feed the ship’s workers and their families over what seems to be an inconvenient order from an authority figure; had the real threat been transparently communicated to the Niamh Cinn-Oir, perhaps the crisis could have been averted. (Although how seriously someone would take warning of “a glowing mass of tentacles that gushes blue infectious slime,” I don’t know.) Euphemisms such as “we are at war with the virus” direct a scared populous’s anger toward a living organism (without the capacity to understand injustice) and away from the government that cannot support its citizens with resources, information and a healthy infrastructure. Such is the vernacular of a country that cannot offer much to its citizens outside of a bloated military budget and the veneer of efficiency.
This isn’t to say that the viewer should cheer on the deep sea creature’s will to progenerate as more important than the survival of any vessel that crosses its path, but Sea Fever does argue that the self-important sentiments of humanity are natural, as is the capacity for sacrifice. Among the small crew, Siobhán pleads for a 36-hour quarantine before they return to shore in order to determine whether they will fall ill to the parasite and in turn infect the population on land, while others argue that the safest place for them is in a hospital, not aboard a rickety trowler now covered in blue, parasite-filled ooze. Regardless, Hardiman is obviously more interested in broader themes of ecological collapse—or perhaps what environmental recklessness can bring to the surface—and whether humans are always capable (or even deserving!) of confronting that collapse.
Sea Fever comes off as definitively pessimistic, though that may only be due to the added weight of quarantine viewing. It does not promise clear resolution or put forth a hopeful sentiment toward humanity’s perseverance; Sea Fever demands the viewer grapple with their own ideas of self-importance and sacrifice, which just happen to have a compounded relevance right now. While Hardiman couldn’t have foreseen the elevated commentary her film would take on six months after its TIFF debut, it’s refreshing to have a film that takes itself so seriously by refusing to sacrifice its moral stance in order to satiate the anxieties of viewers—anxieties that have become more prescient than anyone could have imagined.
Director: Neasa Hardiman
Writer: Neasa Hardiman
Starring: Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Connie Nielsen, Ardalan Esmaili
Release Date: April 10, 2020
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.