Vincent Perez stars as Yanko, a Ukranian on an emigrant ship to America. He is washed overboard during a severe storm, and washes ashore on the English countryside. With his ragged appearance and unknown tongue, the locals take him for a madman. He soon finds himself working for a local property owner, Mr. Swaffer (Joss Ackland), who treats him little better than a slave.
Only two people sense the humanity inside Yanko. The first is Amy Foster (Rachel Weisz), a quiet woman, born to a scandalous marriage, who is as much of an outcast in the community as Yanko. Amy is unafraid of the "mad" stranger, and treats him with kindness and love. The second is James Kennedy (Ian McKellen), the town's doctor, who is as attracted to the man as Amy, and sets out to teach the stranger English.
The tale is told in flashback by Kennedy to Swaffer's daughter (Kathy Bates). However, both of them play integral parts in the tale. It seems odd that Miss Swaffer pretends as if she doesn't know the details and that Kennedy would have to explain so much to her.
With its broad themes of ostracism and acceptance, Swept From the Sea paints the world in black and white. The film is at its best in its earliest scenes, such as Yanko's departure for America, or the English town's handling of a tragedy. At these times, there are hints of shading...we don't quite know where the film will take us, but we're looking forward to the ride. Then, once all its characters are in place, the film settles down into a rut, with no surprises and no excitement.
In another key problem with the film, the lovers, Amy and Yanko, lack definition. A quiet woman, Amy says very little, and does little more. Rachel Weisz never manages to convey any sense of Amy's inner life, and she remains dead to us and the world. Yanko fares a little better. At least Vincent Perez gives him a spark of passion. However, when the two are together, that spark does not ignite.
Luckily, there's a very strong supporting cast. Ackland, McKellen and Bates may be playing nearly featureless characters, but they utilize their crafts to enliven the hollow shells and give them humanity. Ian McKellen in particular has a difficult job. The film hits you over the head with his character's subtle leanings, but McKellen manages to give Dr. Kennedy an air of dignity underneath it all.
When the supporting cast isn't onscreen, at least there are some beautiful vistas of the English countryside to occupy your attention, so you're never quite bored. Yet, when going to see an epic romance, you usually expect a little more romance than what is delivered.
[PG-13 - elements of theme and some sensuality] (TriStar)