Starring Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
The ocean is nature’s last great decider. It’s the reason cinema returns to it time and time again. There is no force of nature stronger than water. The planet is more water than anything else, a human is more water than anything else. As is always attributed to survival, a human can survive longer without food than it can without water.
As such, there are a wealth of sea and water-related movies ranging from romantic drama, to horror, to comedy. But where cinema really nails this subgenre is in the true story; for every The Poseidon Adventure there’s A Night to Remember, for every All is Lost there’s a The Perfect Storm and so on.
Baltasar Kormakur, director of the so-so thriller Contraband, the okay action film 2 Guns, and the brilliant true story Everest, comes in guns blazing with this romantic true story of survival. For those unfamiliar with the story, in 1983 the newly engaged couple of British sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) and American traveller Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) took a job sailing a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego in exchange for a cash sum, and two first class tickets back to Tahiti to continue their adventures. Along the way, they sailed directly into the raging ocean storm of Hurricane Raymond where they were injured, knocked off course and had their yacht destroyed almost beyond use. Using her guile and the knowledge she had to hand, Tami would find herself trying to steer this broken boat towards Hawaii, with food and water running dangerously low.
Kormakur seems to have learned his lessons from Everest. While thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing from a historical point of view, much has been made of that famous disaster which means anyone who has either the vaguest inclination as to what the story was had the tension taken away. Apart from that, you cannot film on Everest day in, day out, so there was an element of sets and awkward CGI. Moreover, the over saturation of the cast meant some great actors got little to nothing to do. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes came off fine, but Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright felt oddly left out and tacked on.
Here, Kormakur is working with the ocean itself, not with a big swimming pool with green screen around it, and it pays off. It feels like a place of unforgiving mass. The brilliant work by cinematographer Robert Richardson frequently puts Woodley as a tiny blip upon a slither of wood in a canvas of choppy waves. No matter the situation, no matter how much hope there is, Kormakur isn’t afraid to cut to the widest of wide shots that remind us you cannot defeat the ocean, it is everything.
This feeling is also helped by the fact that that Kormakur focusses for the most part on only two people – Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Of the two, Claflin is the weaker, but by extension of his character. Sharp is charming at first, the classic brit abroad, a man who built his own boat, and is cultured, but this comes from testimony from Oldham herself, thus he’s an idealised version. Not that Claflin doesn’t imbue him with some sense of humanity, but rather, the film doesn’t want to make too much of him being a human. Perhaps because it knows it has its anchor in Woodley. Before, Woodley had failed to impress is works like Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars, but following her excursion to TV for the brilliant Big Little Lies, Woodley comes out ready to hold her own. Woodley gives the role her everything and the ocean has plenty for her to give.
Tami Oldham is a person of depth and range, someone loathing to be tied down, but enthralled by her older (and odd amount of emphasis is put on the fact that he’s 32 and she’s 24 like it’s a massive deal) new boyfriend/fiancee. Perhaps in other hands, this could come off as a vanity project, after all Woodley is also a producer on this film, but like Witherspoon’s production/starring turn in Wild, this memoir based story is about the torment of a person under extreme circumstances.
Unlike the refrain of Wild, Kormakur decides to cut two periods together. We have the wreckage and survival story of two people injured, thirsty, legs going septic, head wounds getting worse and perhaps nastiest of all ever growing sunburns. But we also have a fun almost rom-com esque set up as dashing sailor Richard woos dock worker Tami as they travel about, having all kinds of lovely evenings.
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It’s clear where the film is leading to; as one-time thread ends it’ll bring us to the start of the other, and the only thing left to show is the hurricane that sets the survival in motion. This is where Kormakur’s understanding of sound comes into it. The score by Volker Bertelmann is moving at times, but never intrusive, underlining emotion without having to tell you things are sad or dangerous. But with Everest, Kormakur proved that the scariest thing in the world is the sound of wind howling, and tents flapping. Here, he shows us one thing that only a cinema can prove – that there is something deeply unsettling about the sound of groaning metal. The big plush surround sound systems turn this into a foghorn of foreboding. But even without that his sound and his camera work show a love of people working. There are endless shots of Woodley and Claflin clipping, tying knots, hoisting sails, pulling rope, unscrewing things, in the end, it becomes a relief to enjoy a moment of physical comedy where Woodley struggles to put the mast back in place.
In all, the film is more Woodley’s film than a true two-hander, and she comes off all the better for it, moving forwards, post-teen drama phase into an adult world of proper films without vanity. Adrift is a date movie in the classic sense, you go with someone you want to get close to and by the end you hold one another and let them know you’d stay with them in a rapidly sinking yacht, and isn’t that what romance truly is?
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.