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The Sea Inside Review

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Quadriplegic Ramón (Bardem) campaigns for the right to assisted suicide, which sparks controversy in his own caring household and draws in lawyer Julia (Rueda), herself suffering from a degenerative disease, and working woman Rosa (Dueñas), who tries to p

★★★★

Alejandro Amenábar’s first three features - Tesis, Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and The Others - were all export-friendly genre fare. His fourth is a very different proposition, even if, in outline, it sounds like a Spanish retread of Whose Life Is It Anyway?, or even one of those issue-of-the-week TV movies that play on the Hallmark Channel.

Based on a true story, The Sea Inside is mercifully light on significant scenes in which the pros and cons of assisted suicide are debated, and only shifts into the courtroom for a black joke about the legal system that prompts one of the hero’s many telling eye-roll moments. Early on, Ramón insists he’s not speaking for all quadriplegics, and when his lawyer shyly confesses that she too would like to die, he even seems on the point of showering her with all the arguments he’s suffered through.

Having broken his neck diving into the sea in 1968, Ramón has been living with his aged father, gruff brother, nurturing sister-in-law and surrogate-son nephew for 25 years. Any film about a housebound invalid has to cope with claustrophobia, and Amenábar relieves the dangerous cosiness of Ramon’s upstairs world with stirring, literal flights of fantasy as the hero’s imagination rushes over the countryside.

Javier Bardem, one of the most physical actors in Spain, is brilliantly cast as the bed-bound Ramón, body credibly limp and unmanageable, face subtly expressive. He delivers a tour de force without that begging-for-an-Oscar showboating that tends to come when stars play disabled. Though the hero is focused on his obsession with death, the film doesn’t entirely go along with him, respecting his decision but showing the tangle of relationships around him with such emotion that the viewer might wonder how he can bear to leave so many people who love him in so many ways.

There is a sense of what Ramón has missed, as friends pop in with stories of the outside or other lives rush on in spurts, but Amenábar eventually closes in on the strong, strange women who come to dote on Ramón - each perhaps projecting a different fantasy of child, lover, non-threatening man or father. Bardem is matched by the excellent actresses Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas and Mabel Rivera and, thanks to their contributions, the more intimate scenes are almost unbearably poignant.

A downbeat subject, but a remarkably delicate and affecting picture - with some deeply impressive acting.