- Review by Patrick Byrne
Survival dramas are odd things. On the one hand, dropping your lead character into an extreme scenario ensures at least some drama, namely the issue of how they are going to get out of it. On the other, a feature-length survival drama needs more than this, it needs minute-to-minute tension. The stress, grit and tedium of keeping one’s self alive needs to remain interesting, and Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift has a clever, but not wholly successful approach to this narrative problem.
Adrift is the true story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), an amateur sailor who ends up fighting for survival when the yacht carrying her and her lover, Richard Sharpe (Sam Claflin) is shattered by Hurricane Raymond in 1983. The film proceeds within a dual narrative, accompanying Tami in her efforts to stay alive while cutting intermittently back to Tahiti, where she gradually falls in love with Richard, making this film as much of a romance as it is a survival film.
An obvious contrast is J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, another post yacht-wreck survival story. While it’s true that Adrift is an entirely different beast, Chandor’s film is a brilliant example of how to keep a simple life or death scenario interesting, and since this is the common challenge faced by both films, it makes sense to compare and contrast. Chandor keeps us engaged by making set-pieces out of the micro-details of staying alive. Desalinising water, repairing the hull, salvaging food are all opportunities for intrigue and tension. Adrift extracts drama from its central disaster less by indulging in detail than by contrasting it with the peaceful story of an island romance, lent urgency and purity by the oncoming catastrophe, and making the struggle at sea into a vehicle for exploring what the movie is truly interested in, which is Tami and Richard’s relationship. Problems arise though when this relationship is explored almost exclusively through a succession of dialogue scenes. These are perfectly respectful of their real life subjects and are very well executed. The problem isn’t anything about them, but the amount of them, leading to a near neglect of the visceral detail of surviving, which is what the setting has to offer. This is why All is Lost kept on suggesting its self. One can develop the relationship of two characters by exploring how they interact in order to survive, rather than by constantly talking to the audience about it.
That said, the film is definitely an engrossing one, and rattles along at a decent pace. Woodley and Claflin give full-blooded, intelligent performances, intensifying the drama, and elevating romantic scenes which could easily have fallen to kitsch. Kormákur deserves credit on the same count. With the exception of two laudable tracking shots, his relaxed camerawork, vivid cinematography and sparing use of score lets the situation and the performances speak for themselves, and give this tragic story a much needed feeling of taste and sophistication. It may be talkative, and may feel long, but Adrift never once becomes boring.