Inspired by the heartbreaking true story of Tami Oldham Ashcroft, a 23-year-old adventurer who, back in September of 1983, sailed straight into the eye of Hurricane Raymond (a category 4 typhoon) with her British fiancé Richard Sharp, Adrift is a subtle and sweet, emotionally stirring survival drama, the picture capably steered by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who helmed the high-altitude disaster film Everest (2015), along with the taut deepwater docu-drama The Deep (2012) — clearly this guy’s fit for the job.
Based on the memoir Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea, which survivor Ashcraft co-wrote with Susea McGearhart 10 years after the traumatic event, Adrift is well acted and skillfully paced, filmmakers choosing to present the narrative in an unusual, non-linier fashion. You see, the movie smoothly shifts between two equally compelling storylines, these crosscutting threads converging at just the right moment, making the emotional punch twice as gut wrenching when it does eventually hit. This unconventional structure also helps to convey the passing of time, fraternal screenwriting duo Aaron and Jordan Kandell, Moana (2016), along with David Branson Smith, Ingrid Goes West (2017), bringing heart to this harrowing tale by crafting characters that feel very much like living and breathing human beings, the action and drama playing out in a plausible manner, too.
The movie opens with an extensive one-take of a distressed Tami (played by Shailene Woodley) splashing about in the waterlogged cabin of a storm-battered yacht, Woodley’s wounded heroine trying to find her bearings, frantically calling out the name of an unknown man — who we quickly find out is her (much older) soon-to-be husband, 34-year-old sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). From here on out, we learn a little more about these now-marooned souls. Shailene Woodley is Tami Ashcraft, a strong, free-spirited drifter who eventually falls for Claflin’s strapping, worldly navigator, the two meeting in Tahiti when Ashcraft was working on the docks in a marina. Flipping back and forth between Tami and Richard’s blooming romance and the devastating events of their ill-fated sailing voyage, viewers slowly learn how the couple winds up stranded, battling the harsh and frightening conditions of being alone and lost at sea.
Some of the picture’s more thrilling moments take place before our protagonists drive head first into one of the fiercest and damaging storms in recorded history. There’s a stunning scene on a rock face, three-time-Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds (2009), using the camera to track Claflin’s character, who jumps from the edge of a cliff then plunges into the river below him, the shot continuing underneath the swirls until Richard runs into Tami, who’d leapt off minutes earlier. It’s within this courtship period that Tami is convinced by Sharp to accompany him on a job to sail a 44-foot liner, named the Hazana, from Tahiti to San Diego (her hometown) where it would be received by its new proprietor, this a request by the boat’s well-to-do British owners, Peter (Jeffrey Thomas) and Christine Compton (Elizabeth Hawthorne). This leads to the beautifully chaotic centerpiece storm, which occurs around halfway through the twosome’s 4,000-mile cross-Pacific trek. Brilliantly recreated via some stunning state-of-the-art digital effects, headed by VFX supervisor Dadi Einarsson, this savage squall, which sees waves the size of multi-story structures thrash and spray the craft, snapping its mast upon impact, is (beyond doubt) worth the price of admission.
As might be expected, Adrift deals with themes of courage, endurance and sacrifice, and the resilience of the human spirit, the picture commenting on the strength of determination and perseverance, Tami surviving 41 days out in the vast Pacific Ocean thanks to the transcendent power of love, which is shown to have both healing and heightening abilities. The film also drops in some subtle observations on adventure-seekers, who are constantly weighing up the dangers-slash-rewards of their everyday choices.
Shot in Fiji and New Zealand, Adrift possesses a gritty ‘real world’ aesthetic, filmmaker Kormákur imbuing proceedings with a journalistic-type quality — it all looks and feels very authentic. Switching between blazing sunsets, idyllic beaches and scenic waterfalls to unforgiving images of dread and isolation, Adrift is a visual opus, which is kinda amazing given that large chunks of the shooting were done on actual water (and we know how hard that’s supposed to be), the film showcasing DOP Bob Richardson’s mastery over the camera. We witness days pass, watching our weathered castaways fight to stay alive, vegetarian Tami struggling to hunt for fish as provisions run dry, grappling with the harshest elements nature has to offer, her bedridden companion unable to lend a hand. Some of the areal shots, which feature the lone and wandering cruiser drifting in an endless oceanic wasteland, are truly unsettling, these chilling vistas highlighting the hopelessness of being stranded at sea. Moreover, the simplistic soundtrack adds uneasiness to the duo’s dire situation, while the dynamic score by composer Volker Bertelmann, Lion (2016), feels rather befitting, the film featuring some gentle acoustic jams strummed by leads Woodley and Claflin.
Speaking of Woodley and Claflin, their performances are both very good; a simple expression or glance often speaks volumes. Though standing to be outshone by her own nipples, which often stick out when she’s wearing tight, dripping tank tops, Shai gives a candid, vanity-free portrayal, the ex-Divergent star going through a range of emotions, happy to be thrashed about as she reenacts Tami’s life-altering ordeal — I’d say this could be some of Woodley’s best work yet. Considering he spends a bulk of the flick lying down, Sam Claflin also manages to impress, Richard sustaining grave injuries — a collapsed rib and a badly wounded leg — after being thrust overboard during the grueling accident. But I guess this isn’t much of a surprise, considering that Claflin embodied quadriplegic Will Traynor in 2016’s Me Before You; even so, kudos to the guy for stripping some of the cheesier lines from their, well, obvious cheese.
Although a tad mushy and clichéd, the film treading relatively familiar water, Adrift stays afloat thanks to the crackerjack effort of its cast and crew, who have brought this touching tale to life admirably. Sure, parts have been fictionalized to amplify the drama — for a fact vs. fiction comparison, check out History vs. Hollywood’s detailed evaluation — but this man-versus-mother-nature weepy seems custom made to move its demographic (the YA crowd) to tears. Heck, some scenes even left me with a lump in my throat.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner