‘This Is the Sea’ is a Fascinating Glimpse at Ireland in the Late 1990s

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Mary McGuckian’s This Is the Sea has been largely forgotten over time. Still, it shares a forbidden love story between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in Northern Ireland during the 1990s. Though the film takes on too much, it has great music and gives a look into the tensions in Ireland during this time. (NBA: 2.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman

Amidst ongoing tension in Northern Ireland, This Is the Sea was released in 1997. It opens with text telling the audience about the peace declared in 1994 and the remaining polarized Protestant and Catholic communities. Written and directed by McGuckian, the film is a tale of romance between a young man and woman on opposing sides of the Irish conflict. This Is the Sea was overlooked when it was released and has been largely forgotten since then, but it offers an interesting perspective on Ireland at the time through a love story with a fun soundtrack. 

“Hazel” (Samantha Morton) is from a rural Protestant family, while “Malachy” (Ross McDade) is from a Catholic family in Belfast. She helps with her family’s farm, while he and his older brother love fast cars. But when they meet, they have an immediate spark, and neither cares about their religious differences. Malachy is immediately smitten and pursues Hazel. However, Hazel’s brother “Jeff” (Marc O’Shea) is spying on her, and her mother thinks she should focus on her work at the house and in the field instead of venturing into Belfast. Meanwhile, Rohan, a dashing Gabriel Byrne in sunglasses and leather jacket, is trying to recruit Malachy and his brother to the Republican movement. “Old Man Jacobs” (Richard Harris) provides Hazel with an ally in her hidden romance and against her strict family, but as events unfold, we watch her cheerful innocence slip away. 

The most interesting part of the film is its depiction of Ireland in the late 1990s. Of course, it’s full of gorgeous shots of the Irish countryside and lovely Irish accents. But it also does a good job of showing the tension on both sides during this turbulent time without focusing on the conflict. The religious and political hostility makes an excellent setting for a Romeo and Juliet sort of love story. This Is the Sea was filmed in Belfast just three years after the 1994 Provisional Irish Republican Army ceasefire mentioned in the beginning. However, despite the supposed peace, troubles continued. The film doesn’t take a stance on which side was right, but simply that the violence occurring was harmful. 

Another significant aspect of the film is its use of music by the Waterboys. The British-Irish folk-rock band was formed in Edinburgh in 1983 and featured members from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England over the years. The band employed several styles over time but mostly made folk and rock and roll music. Mike Scott, the lead singer, shares writing credits with Brian Kennedy for the film’s music. The name This Is the Sea comes from the Waterboys’ third album,  released in October 1985. It was their first album to enter the UK charts; it featured their best-selling single, “The Whole of the Moon.” The use of their songs in the film creates energy that is prone to dragging. 

This Is the Sea takes on so much that it can be a little hard to follow, especially if you don’t already have some knowledge of Northern Ireland in the 1990s. It’s far from a perfect film, and the script has some issues, especially underdeveloped characters. Yet despite its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable watch. The performances are compelling, and the shots of both Belfast and the countryside are great. While it doesn’t say anything profound about the situation in Ireland, This Is the Sea is unique for the way in which it uses the events of the late 1990s as the backdrop for a sweet tale of young love amidst conflict. 

© Nicole Ackman (11/23/20) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Ross McDade, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, and Samantha Morton in a promotional shot for This Is the Sea

Middle Photo: Samantha Morton and Ross McDade in This Is the Sea

Bottom Photo: Samantha Morton in This Is the Sea 

Photo Credits: Paramount Pictures

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

Yes, but just barely. Hazel and her mother talk briefly about religion, her plans for the future, and what she’s been doing in Belfast.

Tags: FF2 Media, Ireland, Turner Classic Movies, Waterboys, Women Make Film

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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