by David Katz
- Cynthia Erivo delivers a powerhouse performance as a displaced Liberian on a Greek island paradise in Anthony Chen's muted and minimalistic refugee drama
Despite the jaded manner through which films on contemporary social causes are sometimes received, we can’t dismiss the occasional real world advocacy and change they’re able to provoke, particularly when blessed with good timing. For instance, the recognition for Kieślowski’s A Short Film about Killing inspired domestic policy changes on capital punishment, and whilst it emerged that Rosetta’s role in cementing youth labour laws was a popular misconception, it still characterises how the Dardennes aim to trigger their viewers out of apathy, to viscerally react to the injustices they depict.
There’s a similar call to social responsibility in Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s third feature Drift, an awaited, larger international production – premiering at Sundance – for the director after his first two features premiered successfully at Cannes (Ilo Ilo, winning the Camera d’Or) and Toronto. Resisting how the vast swathe of refugees from conflict zones can be abstracted into statistics, and sensationalised through the churn of news coverage, Chen alights us upon one figure, Cynthia Erivo’s Jacqueline, a Liberian seeking salvage on an unnamed Greek island, drawing from the Oscar-nominated actress an embodied performance running through a vast plateau of untidy human emotion - including, despite her predicament, some hard-fought joy. By delving deep into her fractured, PTSD-affected inner life, Chen admonishes us to empathise and just care, with privileged countries increasingly placing caps on migrants and instituting cruel deportation policies.
Also distinguishing Erivo’s character from other central figures seen in recent refugee narratives is the near-elite status of her past life; Chen beckons us to project expectations of pure destitution and unworldliness on her, when real world experiences seldom match typical generalisations. Jacqueline was the daughter of a high-ranking government minister in Charles Taylor’s Liberia, as the Second Civil War since its independence culminated in the violent overthrow of his government (which itself was built upon a bloody coup d’etat). With her voyage to the European Mediterranean and the eventual fate of her family initially an unknown ellipsis, Jacqueline is seen eking out a marginal existence amongst rich, White holidayers, peddling massages on the beach and then returning guiltily to a makeshift bedsit she’s arranged in a derelict, concrete tower block.
After a lucky getaway from the local police force, where she poses as an English journalist to allay suspicion about her circumstances, she spends the following day ambling upon a tranquil hillside area of the island, where she meets Callie (Alia Shawkat, in one of her strongest non-comedic showcases to date), an American tour guide - another displaced expat in the Med, but for entirely different and more self-willed reasons. Perplexingly unwilling - although this is the narrative’s slight of hand - to seek any kind of help from authorities who’d likely be deeply sympathetic to her plight, Jacqueline gradually uses her new friend to disclose the exact, far-reaching nature of her trauma, providing context to the disquiet so expertly shown by Erivo’s composed and gestural acting.
Aided by flashbacks to the worsening state of her life in Liberia, Drift starts clicking tidily into place as a dramatic and unashamedly manipulative contraption, dispelling all ambiguity for a cathartic clarity. We sense Chen and his filmmaking team have executed their vision as exactingly as wished, but for this only 90-minute feature, its horizon and final impact seems limited to the steady arc of Jacqueline’s personal journey, prefigured by the sandy footprints underneath its title sequence, gradually washed away by the glistening tide.
Drift is a co-production of France, the U.K., and Greece, staged by Paradise City, Cor Cordium, Edith’s Daughter and Giraffe Pictures. World sales are handled by Memento International.
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