Writer-director Myles Yaksich’s feature-debut Albatross, newly available on VOD, feels like a bit of a throwback, and not just because the narrative is set in 1959. Featuring a script exploring that era’s mannered conservatism, a single-location set for most of its narrative, and sumptuous cinematography, Albatross explores the tensions between its characters’ present situations and their past actions. Exploring the era’s taboos, Albatross poses problems both weighty and inescapable.
Through the 1950s and ’60s, directors like Nicholas Ray, Max Ophüls, and Douglas Sirk explored similar societal taboos in their lurid, technicolor melodramas, often with histrionic performances and hyperbolic technique. While Yaksich explores the same thematic terrain and some of the same rich symbolism as those earlier films, Albatross is a far quieter, more genteel film in contrast, exploring tensions between characters with subtle dialogue and penetrating gazes.
Its plot feels a distant cousin of Mike Nichols’ 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s stageplay, a pair of battle-scarred middle-aged marrieds host a younger progressive couple and their evening descends into a drunken trainwreck of recriminations and verbal abuse. Albatross too features a progressive young and in this case biracial couple, Elizabeth (Katherine Gautier) and Thomas Miller (Romaine Waite)—he a struggling novelist, she his financial support—arriving at the imposing upper-class home of an older pair of established marrieds. Their hosts, Carol (Sarah Orenstein) and Dr. Lloyd Burke (David Keeley) have established their identities carefully aligned with the societal ideals of their era, including his psychiatry practice and her prominence at the local Country Club.
Both couples, of course harbor secrets, some benign, others malignant. Thomas’s hopes of publishing the Great American Novel about the Black experience don’t match with his publisher’s more commercial dictates. He’s posed with directions to rewrite to create something more palatable to a wider audience, or even ditch his racial themes altogether for a harlequin-style romance that will sell. Elizabeth recognizes his talent but wearies of being perpetually childless as Thomas dithers between aesthetic ambition and financial realities. Carol has her own artistic ambitions, though there is little to suggest that only commercial dictates prevent her success: her talent appears to be a modest one at best. And the doctor? His psychiatry practice fixates more on a young male patient’s body than his mind.
Not long after the two arrive at the Burkes’, the doctor is keen to practice his own peculiar and highly unethical practices on the the two, and on Thomas especially. Dr. Burke, though, has his own secrets, both in the present, as he manipulates and abuses a young local boy (Thom Nyhuss) through his practice, and in his past, where the only scenes outside the Burkes’ estate take place, in flashback, giving the film its name.
The albatross is a graceful bird, highly efficient, legendary for its ability to cover great distances with little exertion. In Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross represents the innocence and beauty of God’s creation.
At length did cross an Albatross,Thorough the fog it came;As if it had been a Christian soul,We hailed it in God’s name.
But from that grace and beauty comes its well-known metaphor: that the mariner who killed the albatross forever carries its burden.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looksHad I from old and young!Instead of the cross, the AlbatrossAbout my neck was hung.
And so, the albatross around one’s neck is the person or problem so weighty, so significant, its effect is inescapable. In Yaksich’s script, the metaphor applies most directly to Dr. Burke, yet each of the characters bears his or her own burden.
So much so, in fact, that at times the film can feel more than a little over-engineered, like, say, House of Sand and Fog, a script written originally as a creative-writing exercise. Despite its earnestness in addressing the taboos of the era, and despite its doing so with first-rate cinematography and a cast of largely unknown, primarily stage-trained actors, the plot feels more artificial than organic, more a matter of carefully crafting scenarios to reveal tensions and heighten conflicts than believable human behavior.
Though Albatross’s performances all bring with them the feel and style of the theatrical, as the young, conflicted, struggling writer Thomas, Romaine Waite—whose work has been more in film and television—makes the most impact. Flashbacks to Dr. Burke’s past, featuring Mikayla Bisson, Daniel Krmpotic, and Jonathan Lerose are equally naturalistic—and key to resolving the film’s conflicts. Even while shot during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the industry, Dylan Chapgier’s sumptuous cinematography focuses on the characters’ expressions and gestures while also adroitly emphasizing the film’s complex symbol structure.
For a film named for the problems its characters find weighty and inescapable, Albatross has its own: finding an audience for its theme-driven, quietly genteel, slightly-theatrical drama. At a time when moviegoers venture out only for big-budget blockbusters and stay at home primarily for episodic series on their streaming services, Albatross may struggle to resonate with audiences looking for simpler, louder fare. But with his first feature, Myles Yaksich has directed a film of all-too-uncommon thought and grace, one worthy of the legendary bird for which it is named.