Friday 26 April 2019

"Styx" (Guardian 26/04/19)

Styx ****
Dir: Wolfgang Fischer. With: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa, Simon Sansone, Felicity Babao. 94 mins. Cert: 12A

Our creatives continue to form more imaginative and compassionate responses to the issue of mass migration than our politicians. Like recent TV conscience-prickers Home and Don’t Forget the Driver, Austrian director Wolfgang Fischer’s quietly gripping second feature immerses us in the debate around freedom of movement; cinematically, it’s not unlike a clever rethink of J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. That terrific survival drama exerted a form of white privilege by having Robert Redford wrestle tempestuous seas on his lonesome, with no-one else around to steal his thunder or close-ups. Fischer and co-writer Ika Künzel float the notion there might be something more compelling and provocative yet in the sight of a struggling sailor encountering others in far worse conditions. For the earlier film’s collision of hulls, substitute a seismic and troubling collision of worlds.

Assuming the helm here is an amateur yachtswoman, Rike (Susanne Wolff), embarking on a planned recreational jaunt from Gibraltar to Darwin’s beloved Ascension Island. A prologue establishes her ability to handle a crisis as part of a paramedic team dispatched to a traffic accident; what Fischer then dramatises, quite brilliantly, is how hard it is to maintain such cool, rational positions once you’re adrift on your own, with finite space and resources, and storms battering you from every side. When Rike encounters a rusting vessel overloaded with African refugees off Cape Verde, she’s faced with an entire continent’s quandaries. Does she heed the slow-moving authorities’ terse communiques to maintain a distance, or lend the hand her fellow travellers are pleading for? If the latter, for how long can she keep that hand extended?

At any moment, we sense ship and film could tip either way. Vivid location shooting carries us some distance beyond platitudes, to a place where even the wind starts to sound indistinguishable from human howling. Yet Fischer’s resolutely responsible storytelling – leagues removed from any anti-migrant hysteria – anchors the film, as does Wolff’s intelligent, keenly felt performance as a capable, concerned citizen confronted by a situation that surely demands the same urgent collective action taken on land after multi-car pile-ups. No easy solutions bob into shot – there may be none – but the film retains a thriller’s hook in continually obliging us to assess Rike’s tough judgement calls, and may well endure as a representative work of this moment. Fischer literalises the turbulence we’re now navigating, and asks some Teutonically stern questions of our moral compasses.

Styx opens in selected cinemas from today.

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