Here’s a twist on a classic mystery-story premise: Four people go to live on a deserted tropical island, and two of them disappear. The question posed by this fact-based miniseries is not ”Whodunit?” but ”Did they dunit at all?”
James Brolin (Hotel) and Deidre Hall (Our House) are Mac and Muff Graham, an urban couple who decided to hop into their weekend sailboat and live for a year on a beautiful South Pacific island. Soon after they arrive, however, two more people float to shore in a leaky tub: Hart Bochner (War and Remembrance) as Buck, a penniless dope dealer on the run from the law, and Rachel Ward (The Thorn Birds) as his girlfriend, Jennifer.
These two couples endure an uneasy coexistence until one day the Grahams disappear. When the authorities investigate Buck and Jennifer’s possession of the Grahams’ boat, the couple is eventually arrested on suspicion of murder and then tried separately. Jennifer’s lawyer is the famous Vincent Bugliosi, played by Richard Crenna (Murder Times Seven).
Now, I’ve laid out the facts of this miniseries in chronological order, but that’s not the way And the Sea Will Tell, directed by Tommy L. Wallace (It), presents them. This TV movie is cluttered with confusing flashbacks and shifting points of view. The case itself is interesting and deceptively simple — a lot depends on knowing which character was where at what time — but the movie jumps around so much that it doesn’t play fair with the viewer; there’s no way to figure out the solution for yourself.
Bugliosi came to prominence for prosecuting Charles Manson and his followers and wrote a book about it, Helter Skelter. He also wrote the book that was the basis for this miniseries; I’d be surprised if it is as disorganized and aimless as the TV movie. That’s too bad, because the acting here is excellent. If anyone can make a big-time lawyer seem like a good man, it’s the perpetually charming Crenna.
Ward is convincingly enigmatic throughout; aside from the hot lovemaking Jennifer and Buck regularly enjoy, you can’t figure out why they stick together. And Bochner goes all out as a violent, aging hippie. With his scraggly hair, droopy mustache, and tiny goatee, he looks like Manson crossed with Frank Zappa.
Although the movie spends most of its time with Ward and Bochner, its more flamboyant characters, the other pair, Brolin and Hall, are actually more interesting. Their portrayal of a middle-class couple hoping to give their marriage a jolt by abruptly changing their life-style is accomplished with subtlety, avoiding the standard cliches about such characters.
But strong acting and a few fine scenes aren’t enough to sustain four hours. Ultimately, And the Sea Will Tell tells us too little and too much, too haphazardly; it’s a frustrating mess.