The same piercing intimacy and absence of sentimentality that Singaporean director Anthony Chen brought to the beautifully observed Ilo Ilo — winner of Cannes’ 2013 Camera d’Or for best first feature — makes affecting drama of a displaced West African woman’s struggle to survive in the wake of unimaginable tragedy in Drift. Carried by Cynthia Erivo’s haunted performance as a refugee jolted into total retreat from the world on a Greek island, this sensitive character study also allows for cracks of light as she slowly reopens herself to the possibility of bonding with a lonely American tour guide played by Alia Shawkat.
Adapted from Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker to Measure Drift by the author and Susanne Farrell, the film opens with the eloquent image of footprints in the sand being slowly washed away at a shoreline. They belong to Jacqueline (Erivo), about whom we initially know nothing beyond that visual suggestion that she’s at risk of vanishing altogether.
The Bottom Line
Solemn and stirring.
She keeps a wary distance from everyone, hungrily eyeing leftover food on taverna tables, sleeping in beach caves or abandoned buildings, giving foot massages with pilfered olive oil to seaside vacationers for a little cash and running in fear when a fellow African immigrant offers her help. Flashes of memory show how she has transformed from a stylish, confident woman with long braids and a cool London girlfriend (Honor Swinton Byrne) to a hollow-eyed, lost waif, with close-cropped hair and few possessions beyond the ratty clothes she wears.
Only gradually do further fragments of Jacqueline’s backstory emerge in shards of memory. The privileged daughter of a high-ranking government minister in Liberia, she was caught during a visit home to her family in the violent upheaval of Civil War. The nightmare of devastating losses at the hands of vicious child soldiers is conveyed in disturbing flashes, the horrific details withheld almost until the end of the movie. Even then, sharing her trauma seems to offer Jacqueline only the most tentative release.
The director’s handling of the shocking violence is graphic and unflinching while showing restraint where necessary. How or why Jacqueline got herself to Greece is never explained, making her unmoored existence there among the summer tourists as much a depiction of her sudden psychological statelessness as her physical circumstances.
There’s a clear sense in Erivo’s fiercely guarded yet emotionally flayed characterization that Jacqueline’s path back from grief will take years and will doubtless never be complete. But the film slowly opens up the possibility of comfort when she starts spending time among the ancient ruins on a nearby mountain — the stone remains of a once-thriving 5th century B.C. township destroyed by war, rape and pillage. Callie (Shawkat), the American expat tour guide who accompanies groups to the site each day, explains that the destruction happened “under the glare of a vengeful goddess.” That scene of long-ago violence paradoxically seems to offer Jacqueline moments of peace.
She remains mostly evasive in response to Callie’s continued overtures of friendship, lying about having a husband back at one of the island’s resort hotels and attempting to hide the fact that she’s begun sleeping overnight at the ruins.
But in doing everything possible to conceal her wounds, Jacqueline gradually reveals herself to Callie, who is alone and displaced in different ways. The cautious dance of connection — and perhaps even the possibility of love — between the two women is played out with grace and delicacy by Erivo and Shawkat, the latter as touchingly open and caring as the former is closed off and distant. The final moments of breakthrough, in which the blue waters surrounding the island suggest the healing promise of life resuming, are genuinely moving.
French cinematographer Crystel Fournier, whose striking compositions were seen in last year’s standout gay prison drama, Great Freedom, brings a looser, more coolly observational style here, with moody textures rippling through the night scenes.
The pacing becomes a bit languorous at times, but Chen and Erivo keep you fully invested in Jacqueline’s PTSD isolation and rooting for her to accept the hand extended by Callie. Nigerian-born composer Ré Olunuga’s gentle piano and string score provides the ideal underlay to the somber, emotionally resonant drama.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Paradise City, Fortyninesixty Films, Heretic, Cor Cordium, Edith’s Daughter
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat, Ibrahima Ba, Honor Swinton Byrne, Zainab Jah, Suzy Bemba, Vincent Vermignon, Amanda Drew
Director: Anthony Chen
Screenwriters: Susanne Farrell, Alexander Maksik, based on Maksik’s novel, A Marker to Measure Drift
Producers: Peter Spears, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Anthony Chen, Cynthia Erivo, Solome Williams
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designers: Danai Elefsinioti, Jade Adeyemi
Costume designers: Matina Mavraganni, Mayou Trikerioti
Music: Ré Olunuga
Editor: Hoping Chen
Casting: Jina Jay
Sales: Memento International/UTA
1 hour 33 minutes