Sailcloth (Director: Elfar Adelsteins): John Hurt stars in this wordless tale of a man who stages a “jailbreak” from his seaside retirement home, steals a sailboat, and takes control of his destiny. Icelandic-born director Adelsteins dedicated the film to the memory of his own grandfather, the circumstances of whose death I have no knowledge of, but I do suspect that like most Icelanders, the sea was an important part of his life.
Hurt has always been one of my favourite actors, and his deeply-lined face is even more expressive than usual, considering it has to do all the dramatic work here. There’s an impishness about his escape that initially had me wondering if this was just to be a boyish lark, but we soon come to know that his prank has a more grave purpose, and that this journey is to be his last. And that disappointed me, because I feel like I’ve seen too many of these sorts of stories lately, of older people “taking back” their sense of agency over their fates. I suppose the director would argue that this is about dignity, but somehow it feels like we’re being told it’s heroic for older people to take their own lives.
My discomfort with the theme doesn’t make the film any less riveting. Hurt is excellent, and the cinematography is lush, with an excellent focus on details. It certainly conveys the freedom and joy of being out in a sailboat on a sunny day. However, I do have an issue with the music, whose syrupy sentimentality is simply unnecessary. Hurt’s performance does all the work here, and doesn’t need boosting of any kind. For me the most affecting scene is when, enjoying the sea and the sun, he looks out toward the open sea and has to choose: will I steer toward the horizon or let the horizon come to me? As in many short films, the metaphorical weight can be crushing, but Hurt never overplays things.
Sailcloth was shortlisted for an Oscar® in the category of live-action short, but in the end did not make the final list of five nominees. Nevertheless, I hope that more people will have the chance to see Hurt’s performance. And despite my reservations, I look forward to seeing the development of Elfar Adelsteins as a filmmaker. This is only his second short film, and reading about his work with other Icelandic filmmakers like Valdís Óskarsdóttir and Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, I am sure he has a bright future.