The Sailor spends a lot of time with its subject, eighty year old sailboat designer Paul Johnson, in his boat, but once in a while it shows his paintings of that boat and the seascapes it touches. Its curving expressionist lines takes viewers back to when he first docked in Grenada. He chose sea life over living through the political divisions that are still destroying England, the place where his family came from. These paintings and sketches flash through the screen, one after another letting us imagine a life he can escape to, one where we can escape to as well. But looking closely, the warped shapes in these paintings are pieces in a more nuanced puzzle. Yellow droplets like fire storm onto the boat, natural forces bending it, telling the story of all the storms he endured, the price of crossing the Atlantic forty times by his lonesome.
The Sailor is going to be esoteric, as Johnson and the locals fill their conversations with observations about boat engines. Imagine heterosexual men talking about their cars but with more inside jokes. It doesn’t help that these conversations come in sparsely, like breaking many minutes of awkward silences, like pulling teeth. That said, I can’t help but admire how this movie approaches a man who has lived many lifetimes. There are many ways that this could have gone wrong. It could have glamorized a younger version of Johnson, island hopping and falling in love with unhappy American housewives. And there are moments when the wrong path feels clear here, as if depicting a man of his age as either a cautionary tale or someone whose privilege contrasts the locals. But it finds a nice balance in depicting the unconventional life of a man who works to stay in paradise.