Adrift is the latest in an increasingly long line of yarns about sailing trips that have gone disastrously wrong. It follows in the slipstream of such recent nautical tales as The Mercy and All Is Lost. The twist here, a slightly perverse one, is that the film combines staring into the abyss with elements of a very conventional romantic drama.
I’m a sucker for believable, beautifully made. and paralyzingly suspenseful epics about brave people in the middle of the ocean battling overwhelming odds against nature to stay alive. But rarely have I seen one that can hold an audience hostage like Adrift. It’s a true story, basically a two-hander about a pair of courageous lovers lost at sea. As crushingly hard to imagine as it is to watch. But every element is so perfect that it left me shaking and devastated.
Shailene Woodley, also one of the producers, stars as Tami Oldham, a footloose young American who has left home in San Diego to backpack her way around the world. It’s the early 1980s. She has reached as far as Tahiti when she meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a strapping, handsome and young English sailor who has his own yacht. They quickly fall in love.
The film is full of flashbacks. It opens with the calamity.
Tami wakes up below deck with a bleeding, badly bruised head to discover that a huge storm has all but capsized the boat. Richard has fallen overboard and water is seeping into the hull. From this cheery starting point, we are taken back and forth in time. We learn how the couple met.
Directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur (The Deep) and based on a harrowing memoir by Tami Oldham. Adrift is a combination action epic and heartfelt love story about 41 days afloat in the Pacific Ocean in 1983. Sailing a rich couple’s luxury yacht from Tahiti to Hawaii. Tami, a spirited 24-old drifter from San Diego searching for adventure and played with larky enthusiasm by the marvelous Shailene Woodley. Her new boyfriend Richard Sharp, a rugged, seasoned but sensitive shipbuilder from South Africa 20 years her senio. Played by British heartthrob Sam Claflin, take to the open water like a pair of porpoises in love.
In an early scene, Richard tries to explain the allure of long-distance sailing trips.
As he tells Tami, you’re likely to be damp, hungry and miserable throughout the voyage. You may even begin to hallucinate in your more desperate moments. However, you can also see into the “infinite horizon”. There is something transcendent about the experience which he struggles to put into words.
The impressive Woodley throws herself into her role as the exhausted, dehydrated and delirious heroine. Who just won’t let the elements beat her.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur seems drawn to stories of disaster and what they reveal about the humans caught in the chaos. (He also made epic disaster movie Everest). On a formal level, this is accomplished filmmaking. We see plenty of high angle shots of the tiny ship below as well as juddering scenes of the storm itself. And of the boat being tossed like a cork on the waves.
Between times, we are treated to beautiful imagery of sunsets, passing clouds and marine life.
What the film lacks, though, is any dramatic tension. There is a huge plot twist here – one hinted at when Richard is trying to describe the fatal lure of the ocean and what it can do to your mind. Even this twist can’t put wind behind the sails of what turns into an increasingly torpid affair.
As a bonus, the film shows why sailing the high seas can become a religion for people who love the water. And how surviving the ocean’s most life-threatening tragedies is their way of finding God. Goodness knows what Adrift would be like without the brute force of the intelligence, focus and self-confidence of the two stars.
Claflin has made an impact playing fops and dandies in costume epics.
But he’s suitably swarthy and charming as an outdoors man with a caring heart, and clearly, in a May Day crisis. Woodley is the girl you want at your side manning the lifeboat. Bruised and bleeding, she has a physically punishing role and a dangerous assignment. The film is something of an endurance test for the actress and the audience alike, with Woodley doing most of her own stunts and nearly drowning in the process. For hard knocks, originality and craft in an industry dedicated to imitation and fraud, she’s a thrill to watch.
We’re stuck at sea with the couple as the food and water run out and their plight becomes ever more desperate. Like them, we begin to get cabin fever. The attempts at interweaving the love story with an existential meditation on human nature and the will to survive are only fitfully effective.
Like the two young sailors on their ill-fated voyage, the film drifts very far off course and struggles to rediscover any meaningful sense of direction.
Rating: PG-13 (for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed By: Baltasar Kormákur
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Thomas
Written By: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, David Branson Smith
In Theaters: Jun 1, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Aug 21, 2018
Runtime: 120 minutes
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR ADRIFT:
Tami, too, employs great ingenuity, as do the creators of this kind of movie.
It’s as if the gods were suddenly angered, then placated. It’s pure Homer.
A fluid dynamic that ensures this narrative of endurance is never difficult for the viewer to endure, while also drip-feeding information about the couple and their individual histories in just the right order to keep us both engaged and distracted.
Every element is so perfect that it left me shaking and devastated.