This review contains spoilers for 127 Hours.
It’s possible to feel somewhat jaded about films inspired by amazing true stories when they come to the big screen with such frequency. Fortunately, the shipwreck survival story Adrift stands out not only for its unusual story structure, but for the strength of its two leads, as Everest director Baltasar Kormákur brings Tami Oldham’s memoir Red Sky In Mourning to life with the immensely likeable pairing of Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.
In 1983, Tami (Woodley) and her fiancée Richard (Claflin) set out from Tahiti to San Diego on a yacht. Taking place across two different timeframes, the film opens on Tami alone in a capsized boat, finding her grievously injured fiancée, and trying to salvage enough of the ruined vessel and its supplies to stay alive. Interwoven with this struggle, we see Tami and Richard’s blossoming relationship in Tahiti and the events leading up to the catastrophe.
Spoiler-wise, it’s always difficult to maintain a balance with writing and talking about these films. Usually, if a story is well-known enough to have been adapted into a film, it’s a matter of public record, but here’s one where you’re better off the less you know about it. Some films lean into the notoriety of the story hard, as in 127 Hours’ gruelling, visually inventive build-up to The Bit Where He Chops His Arm Off.
While there’s something of the experiential emphasis of that film here too, Adrift tackles its story in a different way by playing very closely to Oldham’s experience of events. As the audience’s viewpoint, Woodley is front and centre and as you should already know from her past work, she’s more than up to the job. Her performance is physically and emotionally wrenching in the present timeframe, and bright-eyed and enticing in the flashbacks.
While the meat of the role comes later in the story chronologically, the structure serves to showcase exactly what a great talent she is. As I was watching, I started to wonder if it was purely to save a big, scary ship-smashing setpiece for the third act. When that moment does finally arrive, it’s as thrilling and terrifying as expected, but that’s not the reason why it comes so late, and instead, it’s Woodley’s performance that grips throughout the running time.
That’s not to discount Claflin, who has suddenly become British cinema’s answer to Leonardo DiCaprio, having made his name by cornering the market on gorgeous but doomed love interests. There are even faint echoes of Titanic in the storytelling structure, and Claflin is once again perfectly charming as Tami’s broken beau, even though he spends most of the film laid up in a capsized ship.
He’s a tremendous actor too, and when both he and Woodley seem to have great chemistry with everyone they’ve starred opposite in the past, it scans that their pairing here would be something special. Even if you think you’ve seen this type of film before, the way that the leads’ performances, and the things they know that we may not, are so integral to the central framing device is its unique selling point.
While the structure feels unusual at first, Kormákur ably hops between timeframes, rhyming moments in the past and the present to evoke the sense that they’re memories from one character’s perspective, and playing with that later as Tami begins to feel the effects of dehydration during her time at sea. Inexorably, the end of the main thread culminates with its beginning, culminating in a deeply emotional whammy that more than justifies the structural choices.
More than most films of its kind, Adrift charts an eclectic but deeply personal course through its story, engaging with its narrator’s experience rather than refracting a real-life story through the cinematic lens. It should shock no one that Woodley and Claflin are both absolutely terrific, but it’s refreshing to see that this very well-made film, which could so easily have become cloying and manipulative, brings the audience in on what made this story so extraordinary.
Adrift is in UK cinemas now.