Adrift is a heart touching story, based on real-life events. The film tells of a couple’s sailboat journey from Tahiti to California, which takes a tumultuous turn when they encounter one of the largest storms ever recorded. Yes, it’s a taut and true survival story, but it is also an amazing tale of love and death on the ocean.
We open on the shipwreck at sea. Tami (Shailene Woodley) is just coming to terms with what happened. Her fiancé, Richard (Sam Claifin), is nowhere to be found. What is immediately clear is that Woodley is a force of nature herself. Her performance here is one of the better of the early year, and she drives the entire film. Because she has to. There is no better test of an actor than to take everything else away and see: can they hold the space of a giant movie theater alone? She does so nicely.
The film does not continue down a linear path: for the duration, it has dual timelines. In one we get Richard & Tami’s love story, and the other half is about the incredible survival story. This is wound together with phenomenal editing work – one situation in the love story will mirror the trials and tribulations of the duo’s survival. Following his work on Everest, Baltasar Kormákur has handily applied his craft to the sea; he seems to have a knack for this.
Most credible of all is the film’s cinematography. Lensed by Robert Richardson, we’re given arresting, sweeping shots of the great endless dread of the ocean. Every time there’s the puny sailboat plopped in the center of a literal ocean of blue, the plot seems grave and hopeless for our heroine. Let’s give Richardson his complete credit here. Unlike previous lost-at-sea pictures, Adrift is totally seaworthy – it has the kind of scope and visual scale that imply such a great journey.
Perhaps all the film’s greatest difficulties are problems with the script. It has been adapted from the book Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by the real Tami Ashcroft herself. That is always a difficult thing to say when it is based on someone’s true story and they are this remarkable. That their story about being shipwrecked forty-plus days wasn’t impressive to us, while we sit in a theater with a nice sized drink and licorice candies? The problem with these stories then is always the way they’re adapted. Either the writing can go bad or the reading can be wrong by the actors. I’ll suggest it has missed an opportunity to be an emboldening women’s story (look, you don’t have to be Moana but something more) and that our male counterpart – Claifan – doesn’t suit his role completely. Where Woodley looks like she’s been stranded on a boat her entire life, with how at home she is with the situation, her opposite never quite connects to the materials.
Damn shame when every other part is working, to come up short with such a central relationship. We can say, “Oh, but they are a couple literally adrift, genuine drifters who just floated into each other in Tahiti and clung on for a while until their rudderless lifestyles petered out.” I’ll say to its credit it evoked complete compassion for their story. Again, Woodley made ample sacrifices and turned in a hell of a performance. We know she lost a lot of weight during shooting – nearing the end she is skin and bones, just a husk of a corpse, alone at sea. We believe in her so absolutely that it all works.
Adrift is further proof its director is a capable hand with the disaster story. This is a great compliment to the canon already out there. An improvement on cinema’s past transgressions – what if we had a Titanic about a useful woman or A Perfect Storm with an ocean that feels true? Then you would have such a great lost-at-sea picture. That’s exactly where Adrift has landed.