Film & Television

Karen Allen Learns about Life, Love and Clamming in Year by the Sea

Earlier this year, The New Yorker published a cartoon that depicted “Stress Prison, the fictional jail you imagine being sent to so you can catch up on Netflix and reading.” I’m quite certain that more than a few readers related. Although none of us truly relishes the idea of being incarcerated per se, getting time off — real time off — from husbands, children, and the daily grinds of work and home is undeniably alluring.

But, most of us don’t have the courage (or energy) to do something about it.

Joan Anderson did.

In the 1990s, Anderson was a children’s book author, wife, and mother. When her husband of thirty years, Robin, put their Nyack, NY home up for sale after accepting a transfer to Wichita, KS — and neglected to even tell her about it — she had an epiphany. Rather than dutifully follow him to the Midwest (as he clearly expected her to), she rented a run-down cottage on the shore of Cape Cod and committed herself to some serious alone time. What transpired was a healthy dose of soul-searching, a fruitful period of reimagining, creative inspiration, rich new friendships, and a second chance for her stalled marriage.

Anderson experienced all of that, and published a New York Times Best Seller. Her wonderful memoir, Year by the Sea, is now a feature film.

Midlife women rediscovering who they are and what they want has become a tiny but powerful film genre. In 1989, the endearing Shirley Valentine booked a trip to Greece rather than waste any more time cooking her husband’s chip’n’egg and talking to her walls (literally). As Shirley, Pauline Collins found unexpected joy in sunsets on the beach, swimming nude, and with the help of romantic taverna owner Tom Conti, accepting who she was, stretchmarks and all.

About a decade later, Angela Bassett as an ambitious single mother journeyed to Jamaica and showed us How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Traveling to an exotic locale certainly helped Stella reclaim her sense of fun and adventure. And, the attentions of much younger and stunningly beautiful Taye Diggs didn’t hurt.

When her marriage went south, Diane Lane’s Frances headed to Europe rather than the Caribbean. In 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the intoxicating Italian countryside, a crumbling villa and a handsome young lover helped Frances accept and eventually embrace her next chapter.

Most recently, in 2010’s Eat, Pray, Love, Julia Roberts as author Elizabeth Gilbert escaped the heartbreak of a divorce by escaping not to one destination, but to three. She ate her way through Italy. Checked into an ashram in India. And continued her spiritual practice in Indonesia. True to the genre, and the author’s real life, the enlightened Roberts eventually found love in that last stop, in the terribly sexy guise of Javier Bardem.

All of these runaways (after the success of her memoir, the press gleefully referred to Anderson herself as the “runaway wife”) escaped the everyday for the extraordinary, allowing them, at adventure’s end, to incorporate the extraordinary back into everyday life. Shirley, Stella, Frances and Liz blazed a cinematic trail for Year by the Sea’s Joan. As in those earlier films, our heroine sets off on a feminist fantasy, dreaming of something better even if she can’t quite put her finger on what that something may be.

Writer, director and composer Alexander Janko discovered Year by the Sea by accident. He was at a crossroads in his career and family life when he happened to pick it up (his wife had left it on the kitchen counter). He was struck by the memoir’s opening line “The decision to separate seemed to happen overnight.” He devoured the book, tracked down its author, and somehow convinced her that a much younger, first-time director could tell her story. Janko explains, “Joan’s quest to find herself anew is so honest, it was impossible not to ask myself the questions she poses. One of them — who are we beyond the roles we play — inspired me to dig deep.” For her part, Anderson thought Janko was “adorable.”

Speaking of adorable, perhaps the greatest asset of Year by the Sea is its star, Karen Allen. Allen became America’s sweetheart back in 1978 when she appeared as Katy in her first film Animal House. Three years later, she took on her most famous role, as Marion, the love-interest and sparring-partner of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, a role she reprised to fans’ delight thirty years later in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Her career has also included stage work, dramatic coaching and teaching (she’s on the faculty at Bard College). She splits her time between New York and Western Massachusetts, where she runs a fiber arts textile business.

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  • Cks September 12, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    I have a copy of ‘Year By The Sea’, signed by the author. She signed it “always unfinished”.