Three films into his career, it seemed like young writer-director Alejandro Amenábar was becoming Spain's answer to M. Night Shyamalan, with Thesis, Open Your Eyes, and The Others revealing a precocious talent for smart, stylish thrillers with gimmicky twist endings. But with The Sea Inside, an earnest melodrama on euthanasia, Amenábar has abandoned his genre roots in a bid for respectability, and lost his nerve in the process. Gone are the unnerving temporal fillips of Open Your Eyes or the elegant classicism of The Others; they're replaced by an anonymous tastefulness that's as anchored in place as the film's protagonist. The true story of a quadriplegic's decades-long battle for the right to die may be worth telling, but when pinned mostly in the man's bedroom, Amenábar's flashier instincts are stifled by a bolted camera and a procession of issue-of-the-week clichés.
As Ramón Sampedro, a charismatic Galician who captivated Spain during his 27-year struggle with the government over euthanasia, Javier Bardem lightens the pall with a crooked smile and wry sense of humor that masks any hint of noble suffering. With the Atlantic coastline taunting him from his second-story window, Bardem has been confined to his home since a diving accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, leaving his active mind trapped in an unresponsive body. Though his family supports him and takes care of him, his physical limitations cause daily indignities and deny him the sensual pleasures of love and life. When a pro bono attorney (Belén Rueda) agrees to pursue his case, Bardem feels a special connection to her, in part because her advocacy arises from her own battle with a degenerative disease. As expected, he meets resistance from public officials and the Catholic Church, not to mention family members who also question the morality of his convictions.
There's never any question where Amenábar stands on the issue, since the one open debate in the film—a hilarious shouting match between Bardem and a wheelchair-bound priest, who are separated by a flight of stairs—ridicules the other side. And yet Sampedro's fertile imagination, so evident in his poetry and letters, as well as his television appearances, undercuts the idea that the mind can't overcome life's tactile necessities. On the few occasions in which Amenábar goes cinematic, he entertains the cheesy transcendent fantasy of Bardem escaping through his window and soaring across the landscape to the sea. Here and elsewhere, The Sea Inside means to underline his sense of loss, but Bardem's full-bodied portrayal ironically affirms the life his character wishes to extinguish.