Adapting a stage play for the screen can be deceptively tricky. In the world of film, storytellers are encouraged to show rather than tell; in theater, they must be sure that even audience members in the nosebleed seats can follow along. Filmmaking can zero in on the microscopic, the unspoken: Moviegoers can see a character’s hair stand on end or track another’s nervous gaze. Particularly in drama, filmmaking often emulates reality, so to successfully adapt a dramatic play for the screen, one must dial down the histrionics and dial up the restraint.
If only the team behind “The Almond and the Seahorse” had gotten that memo. This film, adapted from the play of the same name by Kaite O’Reilly, is composed of characters so overwrought they seem like aliens. The screenplay, by O’Reilly and Celyn Jones (“Six Minutes to Midnight”) leaks with awkward dialogue and flowery language. Jones and cinematographer Tom Stern (“Sully”) leave no room for subtlety in their co-direction. The absolute last thing this film needs is Rebel Wilson front and center, attempting to make her dramatic debut. Unfortunately, it also has that.
“The Almond and the Seahorse,” named after the shapes of the amygdala and the hippocampus, respectively, follows Sarah (Wilson) and Toni (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they struggle to care for their partners whose memories have been affected by traumatic brain injury. Sarah’s husband, Joe (Jones), suffers from short-term memory loss and mood swings following the removal of a brain tumor. Toni’s parter, Gwen (Trine Dyrholm, “Queen of Hearts”), was injured in a car accident. She wakes up every day shocked to learn that 15 years have passed. The resolute Dr. Falmer (Meera Syal, “Yesterday”), who treats both Joe and Gwen, does her best to help Sarah and Toni as they reach their emotional breaking points.
Refreshingly, Sarah and Toni both consider leaving their partners. What’s happened to Joe and Gwen is tragic, of course, but in the same way that they would have never chosen their injuries, Sarah and Toni are not obligated to trap themselves in their own cycles of resentment in dysfunction. Aging is particularly problematic for both relationships: Gwen doesn’t even recognize Toni, as her memory is frozen sometime in their early twenties, while Joe repeatedly asks Sarah if she’s tired.
There’s much to explore here, especially since the main characters are both women. (In the play, Toni was Tom.) Toni and Sarah might grapple with any combination of pressures: their dwindling opportunities for motherhood, their demanding careers, their increasingly helpless partners, society’s general distaste for women over 35. And while each of these notions exists in the film, none is addressed with any sort of depth.
Where “The Almond and the Seahorse” might attempt to make a cogent point about any of the above, it instead — and this is no spoiler, since distributor IFC has chosen Wilson and Gainsbourg kissing for its trailer thumbnail — shoves Toni and Sarah into a bizarre affair. The characters don’t meet until about an hour into the film, but they fall into bed within minutes. If Sarah, a heterosexual character, feels any way in particular about her sudden sexual awakening, the film does not show it.
Much like the memories of its secondary characters, “The Almond and the Seahorse” is rife with gaps and oddities. This is often in the service of melodrama, which lands with a saccharine thud. Sarah gets a few moments of comic relief — Wilson’s wheelhouse — but is mostly weighed down by portentous gloom. Towards the beginning, she calls the police to report Joe missing, but not, like, missing-missing; he’s just a room away. Who amongst us hasn’t bamboozled an emergency-services employee just to make an angsty point?
Sarah’s prominence (and Wilson’s lack of emotional range) make her especially difficult to ignore, but she’s not the only character leadened by tripe. Dr. Falmer is, for some reason, both a misanthrope and a caretaker. Her clinic, which deals with grieving families, is a strangely unwelcoming place. Toni ends conversations with lines like, “What do you do when you’ve been obliterated?” and “What happens when there are no babies to tell the stories to?” Anyone interacting with these characters in real life would subsequently beg for memory loss.
As she’s no stranger to ennui, Gainsbourg at least has the gravitas necessary to blend in with all the bleakness. Her presence — more accurately, her middle-aged, fringe-leather-jacket–wearing lesbian swagger — is this film’s sole highlight.
Yet even Gainsbourg can’t salvage this mess. Maybe such dour, pompous writing translated well onstage, but it’s unbearable on-screen. Too self-serious to be comical and too strange to be earnest, “The Almond and the Seahorse” traps viewers in a purgatory where every occurrence feels equally cumbersome and meaningless. This is not the sort of drama that offers catharsis or challenge, nor is it even artful enough to be agonizing just for agony’s sake. This film is a chore.
“The Almond and the Seahorse” opens in US theaters and on demand Dec. 16 via IFC Films.