British novelists do love their aptonyms. Dickens had Scrooge (and dozens of others), Martin Amis had Mary Lamb, and for her first novel, “The Earthquake Bird,” Susanna Jones had Lucy Fly. Lucy, for reasons illuminated in the unfolding of a missing-person mystery, zoomed from England to Japan as soon as she was legally able. But even in her new home she seems caged and eager to take wing.
“Earthquake Bird,” directed by Wash Westmoreland from his own adaptation of the book, stars Alicia Vikander as Lucy, first seen looking alienated on the streets and trains of Tokyo. On her way to work in a translating firm — the movie is set in 1989, and she’s providing subtitles for that year’s overwrought American-in-Japan thriller “Black Rain,” directed by Ridley Scott, who is one of this movie’s producers — she passes a poster seeking information on the missing Lily Bridges, played by Riley Keough.
The film’s tricky flashback structure, initiated by Lucy’s interrogation in a police station, reveals that Lucy and Lily knew each other. And knew each other better than the very reserved Lucy is at first ready to reveal.
On Lucy’s introduction to Lily, a voluble, oversharing type who in the 1950s might have been characterized as “blowsy,” the two seem unlikely friends. And they remain so, even as Lily ingratiates herself into Lucy’s life. Not the corner of Lucy’s life where she plays cello in a string quartet with three older Japanese women; no, Lily is more intrigued by Lucy’s hermetic involvement with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a tall, handsome noodle shop employee who’s an obsessive photographer in his off hours.
Teiji keeps a photo lab at the top of a ramshackle structure; there, he and Lucy make love and art and don’t get out much. Lily draws them into the larger world, and on a weekend trip to Sado Island, while exploring ruins, Lily gets close to Teiji in a way that rouses a fury in Lucy.
“Earthquake Bird” is well shot and well acted, and with its attention to novelistic detail it does more than give lip service to themes of sexuality, jealousy and the way different cultures categorize and fetishize each other. Which is salutary, because the actual mystery component of the movie is no great shakes. Yet for all its consideration, while “Earthquake Bird” adds up to a “real” movie, it’s too polite to add up to an entirely compelling one.
Rated R for sexuality and a bit of nudity. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.
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