Drift review | Anthony Chen’s English-language debut is a minimalist triumph

drift review (1)
Share this Article:

Cynthia Erivo stars as a Liberian refugee on a Greek Island who forms a close bond with an American tour guide. Here’s our Drift review. 

At the beginning of Drift, Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s English-language debut, we see a set of footprints in sand. They belong to Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), a young woman, who roams the tourist-y Greek island at her leisure, or so we think. Her footprints vanish from the sand as another gentle wave hits the beach. 

This turns out to be a powerful metaphor for the story of Drift. We quickly learn that Jacqueline, who masquerades as a tourist, is in fact a refugee from Liberia. She has been dumped on the island, with no money, no shelter and no other clothes than the ones she’s wearing. We observe as she washed her underwear every night as she takes shelter in a cave by the beach, hiding from the police or anyone who might deport her back to her home country in an instant. 

Chen sprinkles Jacqueline’s backstory throughout Drift. For the most part, the film settles on simply following Jacqueline as she offers tourists massages on the beach in exchange for a few euros. She meets Alia Shawkat’s Callie, an American tour guide, and by chance but the two women hit it off. Callie seems to understand Jacqueline, even before she divulges what she’s doing in Greece in the first place. 

For many viewers, Drift will be too understated with its lean plot. For others, it might hammer home Jacqueline’s past trauma a little too forcefully in a single, difficult to watch scene. By the time Chen reveals the extent of the horrors that Jacqueline has seen, we’ve already guessed it and seeing it unfold on screen adds very little to the experience. 

But if you’re able to tune in to Chen’s melancholic wavelength, Drift is a powerful film. This is mostly thanks to Erivo’s compelling, captivating performance as the grief-stricken Jacqueline. She navigates the daily tribulations of a refugee with sensitivity, but this isn’t your usual refugee story that begs for your compassion. 

Read more: Civil War review | Alex Garland makes his own Heart Of Darkness

While this is without a doubt Erivo’s film, Shawkat provides admirable support. A particularly lovely and important scene comes when Jacqueline gets her period, but has no supplies. Callie treats Jacqueline not as a charity case or someone to be saved, but a human being, something Jacqueline hasn’t experienced in a while. There’s a dynamic camaraderie between the two women that translates beautifully on screens, thanks to the performances. 

drift alia shawkat (1)
Credit: MetFilm Distribution

Chen’s film reveals Jacqueline’s past trauma in flashbacks. In these, she has long braids instead of a shaved head and her eyes aren’t as haunted as they are in the present day. There’s a palpable sense of doom as we watch her say goodbye to her British girlfriend Helen (Honor Swinton Byrne in a frustratingly brief role) as Jacqueline heads over to Liberia to visit her family. 

The boldest quality of Chen’s film is how it challenges our ideas of what or who refugees are. Jacqueline is shown to be from a prominent, wealthy family, who have enough money to send her to London and whose home is lush and full of pretty, expensive things. She could easily be one of our friends, someone we went to uni with, someone we met at the local boozer, having a glass of wine. Chen admirably, daringly brings the on-going, devastating refugee crisis closer to home, rather than making Jacqueline, or any refugee, into the Other, something foreign, something that doesn’t touch us. 

Not everything in Drift works. Chen’s narrow approach to the themes hinders it at times and the lack of plot tests your patience, but there is hope to be found in this gentle, caring film. 

Drift is in UK cinemas 29th March. 

Share this Article:

More like this