Written & Directed by Francesca Gregorini
Staring Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor, Aneurin Barnard
‘Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes’, a surrealist drama from director Francesca Gregorini, often grasps for dramatic momentum. But strong chemistry between the two female leads, impressive cinematography, and a moving score buoy the film, which culminates in a powerful final act.
The film’s title character (Kaya Scodelario of TV’s ‘Skins’) is a young woman still tormented by the death of her mother, who died giving birth to her. She has constant visions of water flooding in from under doors and walls, threatening to consume her. Her reserved father (Alfred Molina) and distant stepmother (Frances O’Connor) cannot ease her mind. Emanuel starts babysitting for Linda (Jessica Biel), a new neighbor who bears a striking resemblance to her mother.
The film is often tediously paced, especially in its first act, which is dedicated to establishing a gloomy and foreboding mood. But a shocking reveal involving Linda’s baby (which this reviewer dares not spoil) sets some fascinating character dynamics between Emanuel and Linda in motion.
The two actresses are convincing in difficult roles. Scodelario captures Emanuel’s self-loathing and desire for maternal acceptance. Biel conveys how Linda’s placid demeanor conceals deep anguish. And the two have enormous chemistry. Emanuel’s guilt and longing as a daughter go hand in hand with Linda’s grave troubles as a mother. Emanuel, ever protective of Linda, looks after her baby and tries to protect its secret, both from Linda and from the outside world. Linda, meanwhile, provides emotional support that Emanuel cannot find anywhere else. These are two damaged people helping each other start the painful process of mental and emotional recovery.
One of the major flaws of “Emanuel” is that any distraction from their story feels out of place. This is especially true of Emanuel’s relationship with Claude (Aneurin Barnard), a young man whom she starts flirting with on the train. Scodelario and Barnard have little chemistry. Emanuel’s fledgling romance is there for thematic reasons, paralleling and rivaling her relationship with Linda. But it only takes time away from that relationship, which is the film’s beating heart.
The film’s flaws vanish in its gorgeous final act, when Emanuel and Linda are forced to confront their demons. Nathan Larson’s score soars with emotion, and Cinematographer Polly Morgan effectively emphasizes the traps the characters are trying to dig themselves out of. Her tight framing and vivid color schemes are especially effective during a sequence in which Emanuel swims her way out of a surreal flood. And the closing interactions between Linda and Emanuel are deeply moving, filled with pain and hope.
The film may take a while to get where it is going, and at times feels like it is treading water until the story kicks into a new gear. But it arrives at something beautiful and poignant. ‘Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes’ is a moving exploration of the ways that relationships can help us overcome grief.
* ‘Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes’ recently screened as part of the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival
– David Teich