When spunky tearaway Emelia (Jessica Brown-Findlay) first meets prim and proper Oxford-applicant Beth (Felicity Jones) working behind the desk of Beth’s parent’s seaside bed and breakfast, she introduces herself as Serena Molina, the new cleaner. Beth, of course, believes this unquestioningly. The charade is soon ended, and the girls become fast friends. Beth, however, isn’t the only one to be taken in by Emelia’s wayward charm, and her pretentious novelist father quickly takes an unhealthy interest in the teenage girl. The sexual overtones that soon develop in Emelia’s relationships with both father and daughter mean that her outsider presence in the B&B can’t help but recall Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem, albeit stripped of that film’s spiritual and philosophical dimensions. Much like Terence Stamp’s Visitor in Pasolini’s film, Emelia’s presence in this bourgeois household will result in life-changing consequences for all of the family members.
Just as Emelia’s presence dominates the B&B, so too does the character dominate Albatross, not least because one can’t help but feel that the whole film is tied around Brown-Findlay’s superb, effortless performance. However, not even Brown-Findlay’s conviction can quite save what remains an essentially problematic role: in striving to paint Emelia as a complex individual, writer Tamzin Rafn and director Niall MacCormick have instead created an inconsistent one. Intermittently heartless and heartfelt, Emelia never quite convinces as a real person, and indeed the film never quite rings true, feeling as it does too knowingly smart and self-conscious to ever believe in. The quick-witted stylisation may make for an engaging ride, but one can’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers are trying a little too hard. The film also suffers from some terribly clunky expositional dialogue, and at one point even resorts to a character talking to themselves to hammer a point home (“What was I fucking thinking?“).
However, despite these flaws, the film can’t help but draw you in with a nice vein of gentle humour offset by Emelia’s blackly flippant quips. Fittingly for a film which essentially remains a coming-of-age tale, there’s also an interesting exploration of self-definition, centred on the question of whether the achievements of former generations are a help or a hindrance when developing our own identities. Ultimately, the film appears to be about shedding the past and defining yourself within the present moment. Though its conclusion may well be a touch too simplistic and a touch too sentimental, the ride the film takes to get there is never less than involving and is at times nothing short of quietly devastating.