Stephen Arnell

10 films set by the seaside

Text settings

If the sun is shining and the likelihood that all holiday destinations barring the South Sandwich Islands will probably be on the amber or red lists, the prospect of a British seaside break doesn’t look half bad.

Of course, 50 per cent of the UK population will be thinking the same thing, so be prepared for packed beaches, overpriced hotels, melting Mr Whippys, undercooked burgers and screaming children. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To get you in the mood, here are ten motion pictures that feature the sea. The recent news that double-jabbed Britons could be spared quarantine on return from vacations in amber-listed countries means that I have also included a smattering of holiday locations outside the confines of the UK.

A Bigger Splash (2015) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

The sun-drenched island beaches of tiny Pantelleria (formerly a favourite place of exile for undesirables during the reigns of Roman Emperor Augustus and Mussolini, lately a staging post for refugees from nearby North Africa) is the setting for Luca Guadagnino’s loose remake of French psychological thriller La Piscine (1969).

Frequent Guadagnino collaborator Tilda Swinton plays rock star Marianne, who is seeking to put her life together after a suicide attempt, various addictions and surgery which has left her virtually speechless.

Marianne’s tranquil life with filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) is interrupted by the uninvited appearance of her former promoter/lover and full-time party animal Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who also has his 17-year-old ‘daughter’ Pen (Dakota Johnson) in tow.

Harry’s antics prove the catalyst for tragedy, framed by the wider events of drowned migrants appearing on the beaches of the island.

After years of toiling away in relative obscurity, director Luca Guadagnino came to greater prominence two years later in 2017’s award-winning Call Me by Your Name.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014) Amazon Rent/Buy

The plight of soon-to-be-divorced couples and their offspring provides the backdrop to this superficially breezy comedy, where a family travel to the Highlands of Scotland for the 75th birthday party of Doug’s (David Tennant) ailing father Gordie (Billy Connolly).

What We Did on Our Holiday is distinguished by the great (and very funny) acting of the children playing Doug and estranged wife Abi’s (Rosamund Pike) offspring (Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge & Harriet Turnbull). No great surprise, as writer/director duo of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin were also responsible for the hit sitcom Outnumbered (BBC1, 2007-14).

When Gordie suddenly passes away on a local beach, the kids decide to carry out his stated desire for a Viking funeral. Without parental supervision.  As you can imagine, even in Scotland, the public immolation of a deceased relative would be of interest to the relevant authorities

Byzantium (2012) Amazon Rent/Buy

Neil Jordan must have an affinity with the occasionally melancholic aspect of seaside resorts in the British Isles, as they’ve served as a backdrop for a trio of them.

The Miracle (1991) was set in Bray (County Wicklow, Ireland), whilst Mona Lisa (1986) ends in Brighton and 2012’s Byzantium features a down at heel Hastings as the unnamed seaside locale

The picture is not a historical epic following Edward Gibbons’ narrative describing the decline and fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (330-1453AD) but the name of a guest house where a pair of centuries old (but young in appearance) female vampires (Saoirse Ronan andGemma Arterton) take refuge from their undead associates.

As well as his penchant for seaside resorts, Jordan also returns in Byzantium to the supernatural milieu of A Company of Wolves (1984), High Spirits (1988) and Interview with the Vampire (1994).

It’s an atmospheric chiller, which repays repeated viewing, boasting strong lead performances from Ronan and Arterton, as well as effective support from the likes of Sam Riley, quirky Caleb Landry Jones, and the ever-reliable Daniel Mays.

Brighton Rock (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

Rowan Joffé’s remake of classic crime drama Brighton Rock (1948) updates the action to 1964 from the 1930s and naturally enough ups the amount of onscreen violence but brings little else to the party.

For one thing, the undercurrent of Graham Greene’s particular brand of doomy Catholicism still permeates the movie, and good though he is, Sam Riley (again) at age 31 is a smidge too long in the tooth to play the lead character, vicious teenage/early twenties gangster Pinkie.

Richard Attenborough was 25 in the 1948 picture, but by dint of his baby-faced looks carried it off – borne out by the fact that he also played a 14-year-old schoolboy in the same year’s The Guinea Pig.

The movies have a basis in fact, as the Brighton Razor Gangs were the scourge of local racetracks in the 1930s and 40s. Nowadays, the County Lines drug crews of Brighton and Hove have the edge in terms of lethality.

Archipelago (2010) – BFI Player, Amazon Rent/Buy

Although characterised by comedian Stewart Lee as an 'art film about middle-class people on a disappointing holiday,' Joanna Hogg’s (The Souvenir) Archipelago is not without its pleasures, including the performance of a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston and the lovely scenery of the Scilly Isles, in particular the island of Tresco.

The plot concerns the quarter-life crisis of Hiddleston’s character Edward, a city worker who has volunteered to go to sub-Saharan Africa to help promote safe sex and combat AIDS.

A Perfect Getaway (2009) Plex, Amazon Rent/Buy

This tricksy thriller takes us to the remoter parts of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands.

Honeymooning couple Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) are on a hiking trip to the lesser-known beaches, as the news breaks of the shocking double murder of two other newly-weds on the island. Which to many, would immediately sound a ‘Get Out’ style klaxon.

The couple encounter a few decidedly rum characters, including chippy Alpha Male Kale (Chris Hemsworth) and motor-mouth Nick (Timothy Olyphant), who claims to be a Delta Force veteran from the Iraq War. Safe to say the paradise doesn't last long. 

London to Brighton (2006) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Brutal pimps and the death of a paedophile gangster cause prostitute Kelly (Lorraine Stanley - EastEnders) and 11-year-old runaway Joanne (Georgia Groome) to flee to Brighton.

But when their pursuers catch up with them, it looks like curtains for the pair.

As with Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace (2009), London to Brighton is not a great advert for the seaside town ('London-on-Sea') as a holiday destination, although even the most scenic places have their dark side.

Summer Things (2002)

Although set in France, Michel Blanc’s hilarious seaside black comedy Summer Things will remind those readers with a Gallic holiday home what they may be missing.

Blanc adapted British author Joseph Connolly’s novel of the same name to give a scabrous portrait of the Parisian middle classes at play. In the case of horny real estate agent Bertrand Lannier (singer/actor Jacques Dutronc) this includes indulging his taste for young men, women, and the odd transgender pickup when his long-suffering wife (Charlotte Rampling) is away on a much-needed break.

Rampling also played a British author attempting (and failing) to get away from it all in France the following year in François Ozon’s superb erotic thriller Swimming Pool.

Reviews for Summer Things were excellent; the picture is well worth checking out if you have not seen it.

The Witches (1990) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Newquay’s 5-star Headland Hotel is the setting for the titular witches AGM in Nic Roeg’s superior adaptation of the Roald Dahl story.

And very nice it is too, despite the unfortunate mouse and hag infestation.

Presumably the ‘special’ cress soup remains on the menu, as does the cock-a-leekie.

Wish You Were Here (1987) Full movie available free on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

David Leland’s sometimes seedy depiction of brothel madam Cynthia Payne’s (Personal Services) early life was a star-making role for young star Emily Lloyd, one which she unfortunately failed to capitalise on.

Lloyd shines as the mischievous Lynda Mansell, gifted with a quick wit and foul mouth who finds herself the odd one out in a sleepy English seaside town of the 1950s.

Lynda’s early experiences of sex with her father’s middle-aged friends (including a sordid liaison with Tom Bell) and other disappointments foreshadow Payne’s eventual career path. If it all sounds a bit depressing, there’s enough earthy humour to provide a chuckle or two.