“I feel like I’m back in ‘Richard III,'” Vanessa Redgrave notes solemnly at one point in her impassioned refugee-crisis documentary “Sea Sorrow.” Diagnosing Shakespearean levels of villainy and hubris in many of today’s political leaders — with a particular swipe at Britain’s Conservative government — she continues: “Those appalling historical figures are reemerging today.” It’s a dramatic analogy in all senses, though that is to be expected from a great classical actress making her debut as a documentarian. Sincere, sometimes impressionistic and formally naive, Redgrave’s 72-minute cri de coeur feigns neither tough investigative nous nor lofty aesthetic artistry as it commendably implores politicians and citizens to open their hearts, minds and borders to those affected by war in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Shot on rudimentary digital, it’s more extended PSA than cinema, but one senses the filmmaker herself knows her message outranks her method. As such, “Sea Sorrow” should ride ancillary waves to reach its audience after its Cannes premiere.
Those expecting the 80-year-old Redgrave’s late foray into filmmaking to reactive the firebrand activist sensibility she cultivated in the 1970s may come away disappointed: “Sea Sorrow” is a work of gentle persuasion, stating even its political anger in calm, civil terms and hoping to arouse more united compassion than contentious debate. Its position is not a complicated one — scores of people from developing nations are displaced and dying, while privileged countries aren’t doing enough to help — and one would like to think it’s so irreproachable that it barely needs a feature-length broadcast. Yet at a time when Brexit-era Britain, among other right-wing, immigration-hostile administrations, is explicitly closing ranks on outsiders in need, Redgrave’s thinking isn’t intuitive to all.
“Sea Sorrow” thus feels like a work born less of artistic curiosity than a fundamental need to be heard. It’s perhaps most effective when it’s most prosaic, interviewing victims, campaigners and aid workers alike to foreground the human immediacy of a global crisis that less engaged viewers might think of chiefly as headline fodder. Gut-wrenching news footage of refugees climbing over each other to escape an overloaded lifeboat is hard to shake, while an extended passage documents Redgrave’s visit to the so-called Calais Jungle refugee camp on France’s north coast emphasizes the human stakes at hand. (The wholesale inclusion of a Sky News report from the camp, however, feels like a sloppy short cut.)
Redgrave and her film have a most engaging ally in Alfred Dubs, a Czech-born Labour Party peer who survived the World War II and likens his own childhood rescue via the Kindertransport to the kind of aid needed for today’s refugees. Redgrave returns repeatedly to the Holocaust as a point of reference and comparison to the present-day situation, ruminating on her own experience as an “internally displaced person” during the Blitz. The most playful insertion of historical context comes via the director’s “Howards End” co-star Emma Thompson, enlisted to read extracts from a 1938 edition of left-wing newspaper The Guardian on camera, highlighting rhetoric that could as easily be featured in modern-day liberal criticism of the British government’s refugee policy.
Archive footage, meanwhile, flashes back to Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 — a post-war collection of articles that, in Redgrave’s words, “was drawn up so none of the horrors of fascism would happen again.” The recent political resurgence of the far right — from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump — isn’t directly discussed, but her rueful insinuation that sidelining refugees amounts to fascist oppression is altogether clear.
It’s when Redgrave reaches for poetry that “Sea Sorrow” comes a tad unmoored. Recurring visual motifs of rain falling and a foil blanket flapping in the wind smack of student-film embellishment, while a late return to Shakespearean equivalence — a dramatized extract from “The Tempest,” beautifully performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan — is an esoteric indulgence that, lovely in itself, doesn’t complement much else in this brief but heavily fragmented film. It does, at least, suggest that the actress might be a dab at directing the Bard herself, now that she’s ventured behind the camera: Six decades into her career, still restless with feeling and fury, Vanessa Redgrave clearly isn’t done surprising us.