By Nikola Grozdanovic
There’s a semi-sweet moment in the latest human-meets-natural-disaster yarn from Hollywood that really stuck with me after the final credits rolled. It happens while the film’s two central lovers gaze into each other’s eyes (they do that a lot), on the precipice of deciding whether to take a big sailing trip. Richard (Sam Claflin) says he’s been sailing half the world looking for her, and Tami (Shailene Woodley) – expressing blushed embarrassment and incredulous conviction in equal measure – lovingly replies: “Ugh”. The greatest three-letter-word to perfectly sum up Baltasar Kolmakur’s Adrift if ever there was one…
The Icelandic director has already made his mark in America, primarily with action-comedy 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, but all it takes is a half-second glance at the Adrift poster to know that his latest is something way, way different. Based on a harrowing true story, the film follows 24-year-old Tami Oldham who meets 33-year-old Richard Sharp while wandering around Tahiti in 1983. One cutely awkward “oh, you’re a vegetarian?” dinner invite later, and we see that Tami and Richard are kindred free spirits – essentially a couple of nomadic dreamers, who didn’t listen to their parents because they wanted to live their own lives. He sails across horizons, she loves to surf and lives each day as it comes, doing odd jobs in marinas and not knowing how long she’s staying, where she’s going or, what she’s doing with her life. If any of this characterisation sounds bland, believe me when I say that I’m on the verge of embellishment.
Lack of personality becomes Tami and Richard’s collective defining feature – something that ultimately ends up sinking Adrift as a love story. But, at the core of this would-be powerful romantic tale is the hurricane that ends up changing their lives forever. That “big sailing trip” I mentioned at the beginning ends up leading them straight into Hurricane Raymond, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in that region of the Pacific Ocean. Post-storm, Tami emerges from the cabin, bruised, battered and bewildered, with Richard nowhere to be seen. Finally, she spots him, clinging on to dear life with a nasty leg injury that renders him helpless as she – a newbie sailor – attempts to navigate towards land. The story of her endurance is what this film is ultimately all about.
Those who may be worried that I’ve just spoiled something, fear not. Kolmakur and screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jason Kandell and David Branson Smith (always a bad omen when there’s more than one writer) have structured the storytelling into a series of non-linear, flashback-flashforward scenes. The opening scene of the film, in fact, is Tami waking up after the storm, and it’s not long after that that we’re pulled back five months earlier in time, when the two lovers first meet. While all credit goes to Oscar-winning editor John Gilbert for making the jarring composition feel as smooth as it could possibly be, this to and fro sucks out all the adrenaline and cinematic excitement of the actual storm once we finally see it. The badly CGI-ed impact (this is no Life of Pi) might have had more of a heart-stopping effect had I not been on the verge of seasickness from all the swinging in the timeline. That said, Adrift is not without its one major plot twist – and it plucks at the heartstrings with one of the few finely-tuned emotional moments the film has to offer.
Woodley, whom you’ll recognise as the star of the Divergent trilogy if you’re 16 years old and Jane the single mom from HBO’s brilliant series Big Little Lies if you’re an adult, does everything she possibly can with what she’s given. She channels her inner Tom Hanks in Cast Away well, and thanks to her natural charisma carries the film almost entirely on her shoulders. Her co-star Claflin (whose fantastic villainous turn in The Riot Club put him on the map and should’ve gotten him better roles since) is more paralysed by the blunt screenplay than Woodley. The two definitely have on-screen chemistry, but it fizzles out at every turn and with just about every spoken word, thanks to the excruciatingly plain dialogue.
The movie’s release is timely, of course, thanks to the loudest conversations happening at the moment in the film industry and the great momentum that powerful female-driven stories are having. But this is far from a shining cinematic example of quality filmmaking. No, sadly not even legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson – who is behind the film’s shimmering visuals and lovely sunsets on the horizon – did enough to keep my attention from drifting away.
DIRECTED BY Baltasar Kolmakur
STARRING Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
USA 2018 120 minutes