My Sailor, My Love: Sharp writing, subtle acting and a winning Irish setting

James Cosmo and Bríd Brennan star in a film that will appeal wherever humans struggle to make themselves understood

My Sailor, My Love
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Director: Klaus Härö
Cert: 12A
Starring: James Cosmo, Bríd Brennan, Catherine Walker, Nora-Jane Noone, Gina Costigan
Running Time: 1 hr 42 mins

At about the same time that a certain Oscar-nominated Martin McDonagh film was shooting on Achill, another, more modestly budgeted project was constructing a very different narrative on the same island. Directed by Klaus Härö, the experienced Finnish filmmaker behind The Fencer, the new release, My Sailor, My Love, sets out in an apparently predictable direction – one reworked in a thousand romance novels – before veering down a rockier, less familiar path. It doesn’t exactly subvert expectations, but the sharp writing and subtle acting make for a more satisfying experience than a bald synopsis promises.

There is maybe the tiniest sliver of Joseph L Mankiewicz’s indestructible The Ghost and Mrs Muir about Härö’s film. In that romantic fantasy, Gene Tierney had to win over an irascible sea captain who, though some time dead, still hung about his seaside cottage. Howard, played with hulking charisma by James Cosmo, is very much among the living, but, in his nostalgia for the sea and his unhappiness with modern life, does remind us of Rex Harrison in the 1947 flick. The ghost initially seeks to scare away the latest tenant in his old home. Howard is more brutal still to his new housekeeper. Told his daughter has paid Annie (Bríd Brennan) €400, he – despite scoffing a decent-looking bacon and cabbage – offers her €500 to “never darken my door again”.

You would be right if you guessed the two eventually reach a friendlier understanding. It would not, however, be right to describe My Sailor, My Love as any sort of soapy romance. Jimmy Karlsson and Kirsi Vikman’s screenplay fleshes out a cluster of circling characters with great incisiveness.

Catherine Walker, a strong presence in Irish film and theatre over the past decade, does fascinating work as Howard’s daughter, Grace. An overworked nurse, struggling to make sense of her life in therapy, she gets support from neither hostile dad nor an apparently uninteresting husband. In a less thoughtful piece Grace would be the soulless representative of a newer, harsher nation – and, sure enough, her hostility when Howard and Annie become close is faintly shocking. She writes a letter that, in its warnings about the old man’s selfishness, says as much about her insecurities as about any of her father’s defects. Late in the action, however, Walker sheds emotional layers to reveal the damage within. Nobody here is demonised.


The film is most notable for the interplay between the two senior actors. Rarely offered the opportunity of a lead role, Cosmo resists the temptation to make a lovable old rogue of Howard as he and Annie stumble into companionship. There is a hooded quality to his performance that allows all kinds of suspicions to fester. Brennan, now shouldering national-treasure status, showcases her capacity to say everything while not saying very much. The two discover secret energies in their slow emotional dance around testily revealed unhappy pasts. Kudos is also due to Norah-Jane Noone, whose intelligent presence fleshes out the smaller role of Annie’s daughter.

Though this is no sort of merry travelogue, it can’t be denied that – as in the Martin McDonagh film we haven’t named – the scenery plays its own part in winning us over. It is interesting to note that writers, cinematographer and director are from Nordic nations. Would the film chime to different harmonies if shot in Finland or Sweden? Possibly. But, as it stands, it works the particular in effectively with the universal. Winner of best Irish film from Dublin Film Critics’ Circle at last week’s Dublin International Film Festival, My Sailor, My Love will play to any nation where humans struggle to make themselves understood. After all, the sailor belongs only to the sea.

My Sailor, My Love opens on Friday, March 10th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist