The Sea Wall (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner18/11/2009

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 115 mins

Attractively shot and impressively directed, this is a watchable period drama with a strong central performance from Isabelle Huppert but the script promises more than it delivers and the film loses its way in the second half.

What's it all about?
Directed by Rithy Panh and adapted from the novel by Marguerite Duras (who wrote the similarly themed The Lover), The Sea Wall is set in 1931 Cambodia and stars Isabelle Huppert as an unnamed widowed colonial leaseholder who lives on a rice farm with her son Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and her beautiful 16-year-old daughter Suzanne (the delightfully named Astrid Berges-Frisbey). When the sea wall protecting both her farm and the rice fields she depends on collapses, the woman finds herself facing bankruptcy.

With the bank threatening foreclosure and the land registry attempting to repossess her property, the woman conspires with Joseph to marry off her daughter and the pair encourage Suzanne's flirtatious relationship with wealthy businessman Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc) in the hopes of getting money out of him. However, the woman's future is also threatened by her own deteriorating health.

The Good
The always excellent Isabelle Huppert gives an intriguingly complex performance and the film wrong-foots you by having her play a less than sympathetic character – for example, it's clear she finds the idea of Suzanne and Monsieur Jo distasteful but she doesn't exactly agonise over the decision. Ulliel is equally good and there's strong support from both Berges-Frisbey and Douc, whilst Lucy Harrison contributes a colourful turn as bar owner Carmen, whose relationship with Joseph is tantalisingly underwritten.

In addition, the film is beautifully shot (by cinematographer Pierre Milon) and features some impressive period design work, whilst Panh makes strong use of some striking locations.

The Bad
The main problem is that the script promises much more than it delivers, particularly in the unexplored hints that Suzanne is harbouring illicit desires for Joseph but also in the intriguingly odd relationship between the three leads. Similarly, the initial set-up is engaging but the film loses its way in the second half and the pacing slows to a crawl, with the plot practically evaporating as a result.

Worth seeing?
The Sea Wall is worth seeing for a typically strong performance from Isabelle Huppert but despite its promising start, the story is ultimately disappointing and fails to engage on an emotional level.

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Content updated: 12/12/2017 06:22

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