The first time Frances Fisher’s character appears in The King Tide, she’s stooped, uncommunicative, crushed by life and perhaps by a stroke. When the main action picks up, 10 years later, she’s a glowing picture of New Agey vim and vigor, and the island where she lives has been transformed. Nobody fears illness anymore because all discomforts and injuries are relieved by the miraculous healing powers of a little girl. The small population is united and harmonious — until the little girl’s powers lapse.
In this story of strong atmospherics and well-etched types, an isolated community discovers an otherworldly source of harmony, and the North Atlantic setting is as much a character as any of the villagers. Shooting in the tiny Newfoundland town of Keels, director Christian Sparkes (Hammer) plunges straight into a mood of crisis and foreboding with scenes of a pregnant woman’s bloody miscarriage and a disruptive storm. The crashing waves are filmed in rich darkness by cinematographer Mike McLaughlin, the broody cellos of Andrew Staniland’s score accentuating the unease. Even when a mysterious infant washes up on the island’s shore, offering more promise than anyone could imagine, the turmoil on the horizon never quite dissipates.
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The man who rescued the baby from the tide, not long after the miscarriage suffered by his wife, is the town’s mayor, Bobby Bentham (Clayne Crawford, of The Killing of Two Lovers), and with the villagers’ blessing, he and Grace (Lara Jean Chorostecki) have adopted the child. But beyond being welcomed into a loving home, Isla (Alix West Lefler) has been put to a higher purpose, chiefly by Bobby’s mother-in-law, Faye (Fisher). The sweet-natured 10-year-old is a kind of fountain of youth incarnate. Just being in her presence, even when she’s sleeping, is to be immersed in healing, protective energy. Under Faye’s supervision, villagers line up for “visitations” with Isla, timed sessions designed to wash away their aches, pains and worries.
Isla is the island inhabitants’ salvation and their secret, not only making their wounds and hangovers disappear but also ensuring that there’ll always be enough cod to keep them fed. (She puts her hand in the water and the fish swarm toward her to be scooped up by the nets; her powers aren’t beneficent for all living things.) Isla’s gifts, as used by the grown-ups, have enabled the island to sever all ties with the mainland — no phones, radio or TV (this is a story set in the pre-digital age). This separation reflects their self-sufficiency but also their resolve keep the authorities from meddling in their Shangri-la.
All is well, until a devastating event that Isla isn’t able to prevent or reverse. Traumatized by her failure to save one of her classmates, she finds that her knack for healing goes dormant. Bobby calls for a suspension of the visitations in order to give his daughter time to rest and recover. But Faye — who, it becomes clear, has positioned herself as a kind of stealth mayor — plays the democracy card and spearheads a vote that shuts down his plan. Isla, it seems, belongs not just to Bobby and Grace, but to everyone.
The fissures are soon evident, with the village’s doctor, widower Beau Holland (an excellent Aden Young, of Rectify), offering the most consistent, and consistently overruled, voice of reason. Unneeded since Isla’s arrival, and given to drink as a result, Beau looks at the venerated but exploited girl and sees a vulnerable child, one who happens to be the best friend of his kindhearted son, Junior (Cameron Nicoll). Fishermen Dillon (Ryan McDonald) and Marlon (Michael Greyeyes) look at Isla and see the only way to keep the town from starvation when greedy mainlanders’ trawlers are depleting the fishery. Charlotte (Kathryn Greenwood) sees the talisman who has released her from the fear that she’ll succumb to the same disease that killed her mother. Along with most of their neighbors, they’re willing to wait for Isla’s gifts to return, but in the meantime they can’t bear the thought of disturbing the routines that bring them comfort.
Sparkes, working from a screenplay by William Woods and Albert Shin, reveals, scene by scene, how cloistered the village has become, and how certain most of its residents are of the exalted status Isla has bestowed upon them. In Crawford’s taut performance, Bobby is torn between commitment to his family and to the townspeople, and increasingly at odds with both once Grace sides with her mother. The widening rift sets a clandestine minority against all the rest, those who are determined not to return to the way things were before Isla’s aura blessed them, and who will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening. One couple (Ben Stranahan and Amelia Manuel) plots an escape, while Beau’s long-simmering resistance surfaces in the portable TV he’s saved and kept in working order, an artifact he shares with a fascinated Junior and Isla.
The story proceeds through an unfolding series of interactions that could be tighter, while the score, effective in key moments at deepening the mood of clashing interests, is layered on too insistently in several sequences — and unnecessarily, the performances not requiring the emotional nudge or cranked-up tension.
Sparkes draws a quiet, unshowy performance from Lefler as an innocent who’s trying to sort out truth from lies, and who feels a sense of responsibility and importance beyond her years, along with dispiriting guilt when her powers fail her. If only in brief bursts, Isla can also be a playful kid, particularly when hanging with Junior, endearingly portrayed by Nicoll. In key ways Lefler’s contained performance goes toe-to-toe with the enigmatic cunning that Fisher brings to Faye, the person who’s perhaps been most revitalized by the mystery child.
Whether the characters are forthright or devious, all the performances are in sync with the rugged seclusion of the setting, as is the rustic-meets-old-timey aesthetic of the production design (by Adriana Bogaard) and costumes (Charlotte Reid). Against the wild natural beauty, calls for “solidarity” are coded warnings against dissent, and promises of “a safe place” are, as Beau drunkenly and accurately declares, a load of crap. But whatever punishment he faces, he’s made sure to give two wide-eyed kids a glimpse of a bigger world. Within the insular community of The King Tide, grainy footage of Granny Clampett, railing against her Beverly Hills neighbors, is pure subversion.
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