This latest offering from Icelandic film maker Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) confirms two things we already know; that Shailene Woodley is an exceptional talent and the ocean is an inherently dangerous place. Sure, it is the weather, and not the ocean per se, that is the real cause of the dilemma in which Woodley’s Tami Oldham finds herself, but setting sail across the Pacific seems a somewhat foolhardy endeavour at the best of times. Having worked as a model from the age of four, Woodley moved into acting a few years later and worked in television on the likes of The District, The O.C. and The Secret Life of an American Teenager before delivering a knockout big screen debut in The Descendants alongside George Clooney. Since then, Woodley has traversed teen drama (The Spectacular Now, The Fault in our Stars) and sci-fi literary adaptations (The Divergent trilogy) before arriving at what is perhaps her first adult role. Certainly, 24-year-old Tami is the closest Woodley has come to playing her real age and this character demands a lot of her. A true story adapted from Oldham’s book Sky in Mourning: The True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea, the film tracks the nightmare that Oldham ultimately endured when she and boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) set sail, only to find themselves besieged by “one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history.”
Celluloid renderings of boaties lost at sea are nothing new, from Alfred HItchcock’s 1944 effort Lifeboat to recent offerings such as All is Lost and Life of Pi, the idea of humans fighting for survival against the most extreme odds is always fodder for high drama and that is certainly the case with Adrift. Given the fact that this is based on real events, Kormákur feels no need to withhold where the narrative will take us, opening with Tami alone aboard a broken, waterlogged yacht, desperately searching for Richard, who was pitched into the ocean amidst the tempest that engulfed them. From here, the narrative backtracks to Tami’s arrival in Tahiti and flips back and forth between their blossoming romance and the increasingly dire situation after the storm. When Richard and Tami meet, she is working at the marina where he docks his boat and romance quickly ensues, a love story that involves jumping off cliffs, plenty of laughter and conversation that never delves too deep.
Originally intending to set out on Richard’s yacht, the couple change tack when offered a considerable financial incentive to sail a luxury 44-foot vessel some 4000 miles to San Diego. Despite her relative youth, Tami is an experienced traveller and, having set forth to see the world immediately after leaving school and with no real desire to return anytime soon, she is initially reluctant to travel back to America, but the opportunities for further travel that the money will provide ultimately prove irresistible. With Richard left incapacitated in the aftermath of the storm – which is no less impactful for the fact that we know it is coming – Tami is required to singlehandedly repair the crippled yacht and somehow chart a course to safety, ultimately deciding to swing north in a bid to reach Hawaii.
There’s minimal chemistry between the two characters, which makes the love story unconvincing, but that is certainly more to do with the script than the performers. However, Woodley handles the physical and emotional aspects of her plight with remarkable skill and is thoroughly convincing as a young woman who refuses to succumb to Mother Nature’s murderous intent. It is a role devoid of any glamour or sense of vanity and it is hard to imagine many other young actresses willing to take it on and pull it off to such a degree of authenticity. There are myriad visual delights to be appreciated, from the stunning sunsets to the ethereal overhead images of the yacht surrounded by an immense body of water that can turn from soothing to savage in the blink of an eye. The twist ending certainly won’t come as a surprise to anybody who has read Oldham’s book, but Adrift is a powerful ode to perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible odds.