Folks, this is a tricky film to review. If you know the true story on which Adrift is based, you’ll have an entirely different experience from those for whom the story is new. Simply put, the movie is told in a way in which a major revelation is left right to the end. For newcomers, this will provide an emotional and dramatic hit. I didn’t know the story beforehand, and so for me the film’s narrative arc played out in a compelling and ultimately satisfying way. I did find faults, and one in particular annoyed me more as the drama unfolded – I’ll get to that later – but overall, this was a good drama with a capital G. It’s fired along by a stonking lead performance from Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, and it’s made all the more poignant in the knowledge that it is grounded in real events.
The film is set in 1983 and is very largely played out with just two characters. Tami, a Californian in her early twenties, is seeing the world, and doing so by sea. We meet her in Tahiti, where she picks up a job at the wharf alongside Kiwi girl Deb (Grace Palmer). The pair are at work when thirty something year old British yachtie Richard (Sam Claflin) sails in. A romance is set in motion. Richard is also seeing the world, in a boat he built himself. He and Tami agree to sail together, and then they take up an opportunity to take another yacht, The Hazana, on a 4,000 mile delivery voyage to San Diego. But the pair sail into Hurricane Raymond, and their yacht is severely damaged, leaving them adrift for weeks at sea.
Director Baltasar Kormakur tells the story in two timelines, starting with the immediate aftermath of the storm, and then backtracking to the original meeting of Tami and Richard, and continuing to intercut these two timelines through the film. I found this worked very well. It got us straight into the action, while giving us a breather every now and then to absorb the backstory.
Kormakur and his filmmaking team also do an excellent job taking us out on the ocean. The sounds of the boat at sea are particularly effective, giving us a real sense of being onboard. His photography at times gives us scenic panoramas, but he also used a hand held technique, giving us a grittier, documentary style feeling to proceedings.
Above all, the film belongs to Shailene Woodley. I found her performance very much grounded in realism. She felt genuine, unhistrionic, and utterly believable. For this reason when we see Tami having to put her sailing skills and plain common sense to practical use to rebuild the yacht to sail, I found myself willing her on to success. She is put in this position because we see Richard too injured to assist.
I mentioned a fault or two. For all of the realism employed in the story, I found the way Richard’s part was written (or performed) lacking. I can’t put it any more bluntly than to say he was just too good a guy. Kind, thoughtful, considerate, and, by giving the part to Sam Claflin, a thoroughly good looking young bloke. Almost too good to be true. This aspect nagged away at me during the course of the film, and the reason for the character being depicted this way became clear at the end. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the story for you.
As for the ending, it may or may not be such a big surprise depending on how well your plot detecting attennae are working. What the ending does achieve is reinforce our admiration for the real Tami Oldham. Adrift also shines a light on the acting talent of Shailene Woodley and the directing skills of Baltasar Kormakur. Adrift is a dramatic story of peril at sea, and also a romantic drama. You may be drawn more to one side of the story than the other, but it’s worth a look. Especially, remember, as it did happen.