Andrew Steggall’s debut feature, “Departure,” shows considerable promise with the sensitivity of its emotional and aesthetic palette in sketching an English mother and teenage son’s unhappy sojourn to shutter a rural French vacation home. But eventually those qualities curdle into affectation, as this becomes one of those movies that’s too sensitive to live — its characters forever staring meaningfully into space from their pit of loneliness amid exquisite settings. By the end, so much prettified, navel-gazing suffering approaches self-parody. Its gay themes should open some commercial avenues, but likely uneven critical response will make this a problematic sell.
Though we immediately sense their gloom, it takes a while to realize that Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) and her 15-year-old son, Elliot (Alex Lawther), have arrived at their small family’s getaway house in the South of France in order to empty it out for imminent sale — and that this sale symbolizes the death knell of a long-ailing marriage. Bea is clearly mourning that demise. But her only child is at that juncture of high adolescence where he’s as over-attuned to his own emotions as he is deaf to anyone else’s. He’s peevish and unhelpful, leaving her to do the considerable house-closing labor mostly by herself.
This neglect becomes even more pronounced when, on a walk in the (gorgeous) surrounding woods, he spies a slightly older boy skinny-dipping in the local reservoir and is instantly besotted. Handsome, bilingual Clement (Phenix Brossard), who, it turns out, is also a visitor here for reasons of family turmoil, is bemusedly indifferent to this young foreigner’s obvious infatuation. Yet he accepts the invitation to help pack up the house. He proves a more sympathetic ear to Bea than her own son, causing Elliot to childishly treat his mother as a rival for the handsome stranger’s attention. A sort of triangle develops, its pathos eventually underlined by the arrival of emotionally remote husband/father Philip (Finbar Lynch) to sign the final house-sale documents.
At first “Departure’s” emphasis on nuance over explication, and its delicately beautiful aesthetics, have a seductive fascination. But after a time, the alternately spare and floridly literary dialogue begins to seem pretentious, needlessly filigreeing the characters’ underlying psychology, which emerges as more pat, and familiar, than Steggall seems to realize. There’s a sharp, funny moment when the blase Clement responds to one of aspiring scribe Elliot’s soliloquies with “You’re a bit of a cliche — ‘the poet,’” but it’s practically the first and last time the film acknowledges that our young protagonist is, in fact, a bit insufferable. Instead, Steggall increasingly seems to take Elliott just as seriously as he takes himself, climaxing in an overripe lyrical “catharsis” involving slow-motion underwater nudity scored to a Dvorak operatic aria. One hopes the adult Elliott might become would roll his eyes at such histrionic nonsense. Yet there’s no hint that the filmmaker, let alone the character, is capable of seeing it that way.
Stevenson delivers her customary meticulous performance, though too often she’s left over-emphatically channeling the frustrations that the script’s mannered reserve refuses to spell out. (People too well bred to talk about their problems can grow just as tiresome as those who can’t stop talking about them.) Lawther, who played the young Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” provides all too vivid a portrait of the Young Would-Be Artiste as self-absorbed, hypersensitive twit, though that was probably not the intention. Brossard nimbly shoulders the ambiguities of a character who exists mostly as a catalyst. Lynch and Niamh Cusack (in just one scene as an Irish neighbor) are capable in even sketchier support roles.
Though its content may eventually test the patience of many viewers, “Departure” is never less than admirably accomplished in packaging terms. From Brian Fawcett’s frequently ravishing, atmospheric photography to Jools Scott’s tastefully sparse score and the immaculately faux-sloppy color washes on the interior walls of the protagonists’ country home, the film’s surfaces are lovingly tended.