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Director Baltasar Kormakur had an uphill battle convincing me to feel sorry for his characters in the action movie Everest. In that film, based on true events, characters lost their lives as they attempted to ascend the world’s tallest peak. These men knew what they were doing could cost them their lives and thus I was not emotionally invested in their journey beyond a normal level of compassion I have for just about anyone.
When I saw the trailer for Kormakur’s newest movie, the seafaring Adrift, I was concerned that he’d found more characters I would struggle to care about. Why should I have feelings for over-privileged people who spend their lives sailing and wind up nearly dying in a massive storm? Thankfully, these characters are much more relatable and human than the cannon fodder of Everest.
Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) was a wandering spirit incapable of putting down roots. In her early 20s she went where the wind carried her and eventually arrived in the South Pacific. Here she met Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) who, back in London, built his own boat and began sailing the world taking jobs as needed. When they meet the chemistry is obvious and the relationship unfolds in a lovely and romantic series of scenes.
The film mixes up its structure by opening the movie aboard the recently devastated ship and Amy waking up to her worst nightmare. We then cut back to Amy arriving on the island and back and forth we go and while this gimmick has been done before, it is skillfully used here to keep up the pace of the movie and allow us to get to know these characters. It’s likely an indulgence of the modern attention span and the need to keep waking audiences with action or tense dramatics but it works nevertheless.
Shailene Woodley delivers the best big screen performance of her young career in Adrift. It’s a low bar considering how awful the Divergent series was and how underwhelming the teen romance The Fault in Our Stars was but nevertheless, Woodley is incredible in Adrift rooting us in Amy’s story of survival while effortlessly helping us fall in love with her and Richard during the romantic scenes.
Woodley even saves the film after a major gimmick in the storytelling is revealed late in the movie. It won’t be a surprise for those who are aware of the real life story on which Adrift is based but some audiences may struggle with the storytelling device the film employs. I might have found it off-putting if I weren’t so deeply invested in Woodley’s performance; her Amy is a charismatic survivor and the performance nearly brought me to tears.
Adrift isn’t just dramatic however, it’s also artful. Director Kormasur uses unique angles and underwater photography to give Adrift a unique look. The cinematography by three time Academy Award winner Robert Richardson, is spectacular, capturing the action and danger of Amy and Richard’s survival story and the elegance and beauty of their romance. I was taken with a scene of Amy and Richard on an empty beach in the throes of an early love affair. Kormakur and Richardson frame the scene brilliantly with the camera in the water in front of the couple as the waves come in. It’s absolutely gorgeous and the beauty fills in some of the narrative of their romance.
Kormakur had not impressed me much with his previous movies, the actioner 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg and the aforementioned Everest. Both films were high on visual invention but the characters were hollow. Even with the weight of truth I could not be made to feel sorry for the arrogant men of Everest who bought their own fate the moment they went to the mountain. It was the director’s job to make me feel for them and he failed.
Kormakur chose a much better subject in Adrift. Tami Oldham is a character rich with life and as played by Shailene Woodley she is deeply sympathetic. I believed in her and in her journey and her romance. Woodley welcomes audiences into Tami’s life and we want to know more about her and we come to care deeply for her survival. This is a function of good storytelling and great acting and those things brought together with tremendous visual storytelling demonstrate the work of strong direction.
Adrift is one of the best movies of 2018.