Tuesday 30 April 2024

On demand: "Drift"

Anthony Chen's contribution to the huddled masses of 21st century cinema's migrant movies 
is a smaller, more intimate affair than most of its predecessors. Drift's heroine, Liberian girl Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), has already got where she's going: a sunkissed Greek isle where others travel for leisure and pleasure, while she beds down in a cave, a shaven-headed citizen of nowhere, with only the clothes on her back and scraps of official documentation to show for herself. The issue facing Jacqueline is what's next; it's a migrant movie that dramatises a different kind of transitional period, more psychological than geographical. Chen joins her as she begins to address and process the tumult she's already endured: helpful flashbacks describe her life in Liberia and London, where Erivo sports longer locks, a Stockwell accent, and signs of prior privilege. Back in the present, there's a relationship of some kind with an American tour guide, who represents an easy-breezy freedom and is embodied by Alia Shawkat at her most relaxed. (Practically her first onscreen act is to offer Jacqueline a stick of chewing gum, a gesture that assumes a greater poignancy once we realise it's the closest the latter has received to a free meal for some while.) Amid the rubble and ruins of various fallen civilisations - first ancient bathhouses, then what's been left of an abandoned apartment complex - Drift begins to show us gradual and often haphazard rebuilding, first of a life, then of a trust in our fellow man.

For a while, I wondered whether the film was in fact being too easy-breezy to do full justice to its protagonist's experiences. With good reason, we are suckered by the idyllic scenery - but then you wouldn't have to look too far along the horizon, most immediately to the Lampedusa to which the migrants clung in 2016's documentary Fire at Sea, to see such narratives playing out on golden shores such as this. Within the context of this film, it allows Chen to play with notions of tension and release. The flashbacks capture a slow creep into bloody civil war, the walls closing in on Jacqueline's well-to-do, once-untouchable family, where the present-day action permits the camera (like the heroine, like us) to pause, breathe, relax, take stock. Drift is at its most effective in these quieter, more reflective moments: scenes involving Jacqueline's English contacts (including Honor Swinton Byrne as an upwardly mobile pal who won't for a moment have to worry about armed men invading her back garden) land somewhere between sketchy and soapy - Chen hasn't the budget to fully flesh these characters out - while the dialogue that washes in like the tide in the second half is a touch plain and utilitarian, a means of closing any remaining gaps. Yet the film remains persuasive - and quietly moving - so long as it stays close to two performers you'd probably follow to the ends of the earth, and simply lets them be. With her Tim Roth-like internality, Erivo is particularly adept at suggesting degrees of hurt and pain without saying a word; yet handed a restaurant's complementary bread basket, she turns visibly childlike, and her rare smiles feel like hard-earned rewards. Shawkat, meanwhile, infuses a slightly underwritten part with a spirit - a liberated, adventurous warmth - you might well want to find waiting for you at the end of a long, winding and dangerous road. Drift's essential modesty appears to have counted against it - it lands on streaming off the back of a surprisingly cursory theatrical release - but in the company of its two fine leads, it nudges towards an understanding of what and who we need to heal and move on, and how, in even the clearest of conditions, that progress isn't always as easy as it might first look.

Drift is currently available to rent via the BFI Player.

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