The Sea Inside (PG)

Always look on the bright side of life...
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Paralysed people who demand the right to end their own lives are an oddly hot topic at the moment. In the West End there's a revival of Whose Life is it Anyway?, and now there's a new Spanish film, The Sea Inside, which is a more graceful study of the same theme. The lead roles in the film and the play must have been cast for similar reasons. Whose Life is it Anyway? stars Kim Cattrall, best known as someone who uses her body in every conceivable way in Sex and the City, so it's a shock to see her as someone who can't use her body at all. And The Sea Inside gets a corresponding effect by featuring Javier Bardem as its quadriplegic hero.

The Oscar-nominated star of Before Night Falls, Bardem is the model of bronzed and barrel-chested Mediterranean physicality - even wheelchair-bound in Almodóvar's Live Flesh, he always looks as if he's about to heave a horse and cart onto his shoulders and carry them up a mountain to the next village. It's a jolt, then, to see him debilitated and immobile, especially as an expert make-up job adds 20 years to the actor's 35: seeing him bald is almost as unsettling as seeing him paralysed. In the film, a pile of snapshots shows us the vigour his character once had as a sailor, and Bardem is glimpsed in his rugged and windswept youth for a few seconds in a flashback (naturally, that's the image that's been used on the film poster, just as the foxy picture of Cattrall on the Whose Life is it Anyway? poster could be a Gap advert). But by and large The Sea Inside relies on our own recollections of Bardem to convey how much his character has lost, so we're mercifully spared any syrupy memory-montages of soft-focus ambles through the meadows. It's typical of the film's restraint.

Bardem plays real-life quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, who broke his neck when he dived into the sea in 1968. From then on he fought for the right "to die with dignity", and was celebrated both for his campaigning and his published poetry. When the film opens, Sampedro has been incapacitated for 26 years. He lives in bed in a mossy, Galician farmhouse, where he is looked after by his surly brother, his tireless sister-in-law and a teenaged nephew who is so used to living with a paralysed uncle that he doesn't give it a second thought. Two new people enter Sampedro's life. One is Rosa (Lola Dueñas, the nurse in Talk to Her), a single mother who works in a meat-packing factory. Having seen him being interviewed on television, she cycles over with the naïve aim of restoring his will to live. In fact, as he quickly notes, it's her own will to live that needs restoring. The other woman, Julia (Belén Rueda), is a beautiful lawyer who works on Sampedro's brief and encourages him to compile his first book. Suffering from a chronic disability of her own, she may be his soulmate.

The film is directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenábar, the maker of The Others and Open Your Eyes (remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky). And, like Open Your Eyes, The Sea Inside addresses the question of whether a fantasy life can compare with an active one. But Amenábar doesn't want to plough through the issues. Sampedro states his case at the start of the film, but he's not pulling out all the stops to impress us, he's talking in the matter-of-fact manner of someone who's said it all many times before. The one scene that looks like being the central ethical showdown occurs when a quadriplegic priest comes to visit, but it doesn't go quite as the priest would have planned. His wheelchair won't fit up the stairs and Sampedro refuses to be carried down, so what we get is not a struggle for the soul, but the best stairwell-set comedy scene since Laurel and Hardy were in the piano transportation business.

In another sequence, Sampedro consents to leave his house for the first time in years in order to read out a statement in court. In any other film, this would be the cue for the violins to swell and for the audience to break into fervent applause. In The Sea Inside, a judge says that it's against procedure for Sampedro to read out his statement, and that's the end of the scene. The film takes its tone from Sampedro himself. In an extraordinary performance, Bardem depicts a man whose wry humour and no-nonsense toughness serve as a bulwark against the feelings that would engulf him if he let them. When a drop of emotion does leak through, it's far more hankie-dampening than if everyone had been weeping and hugging all the way through.

One crucial difference between The Sea Inside and Whose Life is it Anyway? is that, in the latter, we never meet any of the heroine's friends or family, so while the play may have a question for a title, it's a question that's answered without hesitation: it's her life, and no one else has any say in the matter. The Sea Inside is more ambivalent. Devoting as much attention to the people around Sampedro as it does to the man himself, it asks to what extent a person's life belongs to their loved ones, and concludes that Sampedro must have a vein of steely selfishness to want to leave behind people who need him more than he needs them. Again, though, the affection that Sampedro inspires has a funny side as well its tragic one.

The three main women in his life - Rosa, Julia and his sister-in-law - are all jealous of each other, leading to some strange black comedy. Amenábar gives us an uplifting, unsentimental film about someone who longs for death, and quite possibly the first ever bedroom farce about someone who can't move from the neck down.

Jonathan Romney is away