Swept from the Sea at Low Tide

Rachel Weisz, Vincent Perez, Kathy Bates, Ian McKellen, Zoe Wanamaker, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland. Directed by Beeban Kidron. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish, French). 115 minutes. 1997. Columbia TriStar 21649-D. Rated R. $22.25.

With its intimate, quiet love affair between two misfits blown up to epic scale and fueled by John Barry's cloying score, the prospect of watching Swept from the Sea for a second time filled me with dread. But, surprisingly, it works much better on DVD. The hot-air presentation and swoop that, on the big screen, overtook the fragile, frail core of a slight story feels more balanced and in proportion at home.

Swept from the Sea is based on a short story written in 1901 by Joseph Conrad and titled "Amy Foster"---as was the film, originally. At its heart, the tale reflects many of Conrad's own experiences and thoughts about being an immigrant in England. Conrad was Polish/Ukrainian, and he moved to Britain as a young man. He felt the oppression and stigma of being an outsider his entire life; those hurts, as well as his flight toward nature and animals in the face of slights by his new countrymen, were topics he wrote about repeatedly in classics like Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness.

As directed by Beeban Kidron, an Englishwoman not known for subtlety (Used People, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), Swept from the Sea is more focused and in sync with Conrad's story on the small screen without sacrificing one of its three major characters: the sea. Rachel Weisz (The Land Girls, Stealing Beauty) might be a bit too glamorous to be the mute country lass, Amy, who befriends the shipwrecked, emotional Ukrainian, Yanko (a gallant Vincent Perez). But the premise that both are strangers in a strange land feels restrained and more in perspective when compared to the overwhelming presentation in a big, open (and, in this case, mostly empty) theater.

Yanko is on his way to the free world---America---when his ship is wrecked, leaving him its gloomy, guilty sole survivor. Amy has a private refuge on the seashore where she hoards small treasures found in the tidal pools. Yanko is swept to Amy's door by the water, and he's saved and doomed by the growing friendship and eventual love that blooms between two such suspect, unlikely lovers.

Their relationship shocks her family and the narrow-minded villagers, and the pair is exiled from respectability and an already limited social life. However, they prevail and begin to sway the town's thinking. They befriend a doctor (Ian McKellen) and the rich, spinsterish Miss Swafford (Kathy Bates), who recall their star-crossed romance in voice-over and flashback, moving through time to survey its tragic tale.

Sadly, the device doesn't work well; it opts to fill the silences in the story with music and images of sunsets and swollen seascapes, which ultimately seems to indicate the filmmakers' lack of confidence in the script. Despite the dreadful score, the sound is clear, and the DVD is free from digital artifacts.

"Amy Foster" would have been better served by remaining on the page, where the reader's imagination can spark it to life.