- Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
- Written by: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith
- Starring: Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin
- Classification: PG
- 100 minutes
When an audience entrusts itself to the hands of the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, it can be sure that bad things are going to happen.
In 2015, Kormakur directed Everest, a drama about the fatal climbing season of 1996. Now he’s back with Adrift, a film inspired by the true story of Tami Oldham, a young American woman who survived 41 days adrift in a sailboat damaged in the hurricane that killed her fiancé. Sit back and clutch the arm rests, because you just know that the weather is going to turn.
Even the most casual viewer of Everest was probably aware that tragedy struck on the mountain that summer; the film was charged with foreboding. You can also guess that the less-familiar events in Adrift will produce instead a tale of remarkable survival, because otherwise nobody would have been around to tell it. Still, watching Shailene Woodley’s increasingly desperate Tami is another sweaty-palmed experience. Like Everest, Adrift is a movie throbbing with an audience’s anxiety – and yet it is not particularly dramatic.
Indeed, Adrift has a rather generic feel, like one of those stereotypical Hollywood pitch sessions. It’s like All Is Lost, except she’s a woman. It’s like Wild, except at sea. But without Robert Redford’s miraculous and wordless solo performance in the former, or Reese Witherspoon’s brave take on an intriguingly flawed character in the latter, Adrift is often just that.
Part of the film’s difficulty is the decision by its trio of screenwriters to devote half the action, told in flashbacks from the storm at sea, on the banal romance between Tami and Richard Sharp, the single-handed, ocean-going sailor who she meets in Tahiti. Tami is a free spirit, a 24-year-old wild child leaving the grandparents who raised her back in San Diego to travel the world; Sharp is a 33-year-old British loner amazed to meet a woman who is “fearless … like a bloke.”
Is there more to the attraction than that amazement plus the prospect of reliable crew when the owners of a nice yacht ask him to sail it across the Pacific? Hard to say, since Tami seems more irresponsible than interesting, always ready to catch the next wave, which in this case is Sam Claflin’s charmingly understated Brit. Woodley’s performance only becomes impressive (and increasingly physical) as the shipwrecked Tami, who previously served as a cook on a schooner, must figure out how to navigate the Pacific with a sextant and a storm jib after the hurricane knocks out the mast, the radio, the navigation systems and Richard himself. The details of what Oldham did are actually inspirational; her personality apparently less so.
As for Richard, Claflin’s performance as the solitary obsessive creates a more intriguing figure than Woodley’s Tami, but audiences are sure to debate the screenwriters’ decision to keep him alive and kicking for much longer than Sharp actually survived in real life. Is it a necessary device? Does it not suggest a certain sexism as Hollywood shops around for female versions of survival stories and decides that Tami is more plausible as part of a couple? At least Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed was allowed to conquer the wild alone; of course, Redford’s fictional sailor needed no companion.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Adrift’s solution to solo survival is not always plausible as Kormakur’s movie struggles to make it back to shore.