Sea Fever opens with a spectacular shot under the ocean’s surface, sunlight radiating through the wash above, before something plunges into the water: a fully dressed woman who opens her mouth to gasp for breath before there is a cutaway to the title, and then to a huge drifting jellyfish. The woman is Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), an intelligent, if deeply introverted, student of marine biology – and if what we have seen is her recurring nightmare about drowning, another of her nightmares is about to be realised as she commences course fieldwork which requires her to share close quarters with other people, namely the crew of a fishing vessel.
Fear of drowning pervades the film. The ship’s owner Freya (Connie Nielsen) informs Siobhán that “fishermen don’t swim… ’cause it’s better to go fast, nobody wants to drown slow” – and also tells her that the traces of bioluminous phytoplankton visible in the boat’s wake at night are said to be the glowing tresses of the legendary Niamh Cinn Óir (after whom the boat is named) who, lovesick, “gave herself to the sea” where she now dwells forever.
This blurring of science and myth comes to characterise writer/director Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever, which at first seems to derive its title from sailors’ slang for a kind of psychosis associated with onboard sleep deprivation (the crew work long shifts), but soon acquires a more straightforwardly literal meaning once the vessel has trespassed into an ‘exclusion zone’, and something monstrous attaches itself to the hull, bringing with it parasitic infection and deadly fever. At this point the film reveals itself to be the seaborne equivalent of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), unleashing bodily invasion and paranoia in a tight space far from any help. “Things happen at sea,” says ship’s mate Johnny (Jack Hickey), demanding that Siobhán relax – but she is desperate to get to the bottom of what is plaguing the ship, and works with the ship’s Syrian engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) to find a way either to keep everyone afloat, or at least not to bring the rest of humanity down with them.
In Hardiman’s ecological yarn, a hadopelagic creature brings the Lovecraftian dread, while the crew, along with their compromised, conscience-heavy captain Gerard (Dougray Scott), anchor everything in realism – even if, in the end, the most grounded person aboard will dive headlong into the realm of mariner’s myth, reenacting Niamh Cinn Öir’s folk tale for real. In between, this is a tense, claustrophobic affair, with moments of genuine awe to offset all the icky body horror and eye abuse.
Sea Fever was seen and reviewed at Glasgow FrightFest 2020.