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ADRIFT

Producer: Baltasar Kormakur, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and Shailene Woodley
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Writer: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Grace Palmer
Studio: STX Films

C+

Imagine Robert Redford’s man-against-the-sea film “All Is Lost” (2013) rewritten by Nicholas Sparks, and you’ll have some idea of what “Adrift” is like. Though Baltasar Kormákur’s movie, starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin as a young couple who run into a terrible storm while attempting to sail from Tahiti to California on a posh yacht, is based on a true story, lines of dialogue like “I’ve sailed halfway around the world to find you” reek of characteristic Sparksian slosh.

The script, adapted by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith from the 2002 memoir “Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea” by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart, tells of an ill-fated voyage young Oldham (played by Woodley) made with Richard Sharp (Claflin) in 1983.

In this telling, the two met in Tahiti and quickly developed a loving relationship that was to lead to her joining him on the Mayaluga, a sailboat he’d built himself, for a round-the-world trip. But an offer of $10,000 Richard received from a British couple (Jeffrey Thomas and Elizabeth Hawthorne) to sail their yacht Hazana to Tami’s hometown of San Diego proved irresistible, and off they went. Initially the trip was a pleasurable one, but then they got caught up in Hurricane Raymond. Tami was knocked unconscious below deck, and when she awoke Richard was gone, thrown overboard.

The film takes substantial liberties in recounting what followed, not least in showing Tami apparently rescuing Richard, whom she spies clinging to debris, and nursing the injured man for weeks during the effort to sail the damaged craft to safety in Hawaii. She did eventually reach that goal, being picked up off the Hawaiian coast by a fishing boat.

In certain respects the film is extremely predictable: it closes, of course, with photos showing the real Oldham and Sharp before the closing credits roll, a standard device. In others, however, it is not, rejecting a straightforward chronological narrative in favor of one that juxtaposes scenes of the couple’s whirlwind romance in Tahiti with sequences portraying the trans-Pacific voyage that ends in disaster.

Both elements of the picture have virtues. The locations in the romantic scenes (shot in Fiji) are gorgeous, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s widescreen images take full advantage of them. The camerawork in the open-sea sequences is equally impressive, and the storm effects are for the most part quite convincing.

Nevertheless there’s an air of familiarity about the film that, combined with the cloying quality brought to the central relationship, comes very close to sabotaging the entire enterprise. At a time when the presentation of strong heroines is becoming more and more desirable on screen, Woodley’s Oldham certainly fills the bill; she might be giddy over Richard, but she’s more fearless than he is when it comes to jumping from a Tahitian cliff into a river below, and in the aftermath of the storm she steels herself to become navigator and pilot although the odds seem insurmountable. The actress does a generally fine job of delineating the character’s ups and downs, although it must be admitted that one might occasionally be irritated by the undercurrent of shrillness she brings to the role.

As for Claflin, he’s used mainly as a smiling hunk with a cute accent who serves, as the story progresses, as the reverse of a damsel-in-distress. He manages the job amiably enough, but it’s a fairly thankless task. The rest of the cast is purely utilitarian, though there are some nice cameos by islanders, like one by Siale Tunoka as a customs agent.

One does have to wonder, though, whether there is any longer a taste among audiences for disaster-at-sea movies like this one, even if they have inspiringly upbeat endings. Think not only of “All Is Lost,” but of Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) or Craig Gillespie’s “The Finest Hours” (2016)—all pretty good flicks that were box-office disappointments.

Of course, none of those films had a prominent romantic angle, and perhaps, as with “Titanic,” that element will mean smoother sailing for “Adrift.” On the other hand, the mawkishness with which the romance is handled undermines the urgency of the larger survival narrative, as was the case with last year’s “The Mountain Between Us”—another tale of endurance under extreme pressure that audiences avoided. “Adrift” isn’t awful, but its Sparksian tendencies ultimately sink it.

THE LAST WITNESS

Producer: Carol Harding and Krzysztof Solek
Director: Piotr Szkopiak
Writer: Paul Szambowski and Piotr Szkopiak
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, Robert Wieckiewicz, Talulah Riley, Michael Gambon, Will Thorp, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Gwilym Lee, Piotr Stramowski, Sam Marks, Ian Midlane and Michael Byrne
Studio: Momentum Pictures

C+

The facts about the so-called Katyn Forest Massacre are now well established. It involved the mass execution of members of the Polish elite—military and civilian—by the Soviet secret police, or NKVD, in April and May of 1940. The victims, numbering more than 20,000, had been taken prisoner in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, and their murder was specifically authorized by the Politburo and Stalin. The dead were buried in mass graves. In 1990, the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev, formally admitted responsibility, and in 2010 the Russian Duma confirmed that finding. (One wonders whether the Putin regime of today would do likewise.)

In the closing days of World War II and the years following, however, there were no such public expressions of certitude. In April, 1943, the Nazi government announced the discovery of the graves, but the Soviets responded by claiming that the massacre had been committed by German forces in 1941. Despite evidence to the contrary, the British and American governments, deeply concerned about maintaining good relations with their ally, went along with Stalin’s denials and the shifting of responsibility to the Germans. In short, they covered up the truth in what they deemed a higher international interest.

Director Piotr Szkopiak, whose grandfather was among the Katyn victims, has now collaborated with Paul Szambowski on a screen adaptation of the latter’s play, which fashions a fictional narrative about an investigation of the massacre by a British reporter in 1946-47. It is based on an actual eyewitness report by Ivan Krivozertiev, a Belorussian peasant who had fled to the west with the retreating German army in late 1943 and wound up in Germany before being sent first to Italy and then England. There he was placed in a displaced persons’ camp under the name of Mikhail (or Michael) Loboda. In May, 1945, he had given a deposition to an investigator collecting material for the Nuremberg trials, in which he described seeing the massacre, but the matter was never brought up in the proceedings. He died in the countryside of Gloucestershire in 1947.

“The Last Witness” uses this material as a springboard for a thriller in which Loboda’s account becomes the basis for an inquiry into the event—and the subsequent cover-up by the British authorities—by a young journalist named Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer, here with a prominent moustache and a perpetual gloomy look). Underwood’s brother John (Gwilym Lee) is serving at the camp where Loboda is brought as a sort of caretaker for the Poles, a duty he shares with Polish liaison Col. Janusz Pietrowski (Will Thorp). Stephen comes to the camp to visit John, but also the woman he loves—Jeanette Mitchell (Talulah Riley), the unhappy wife of Mason Mitchell (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a member of the British security establishment that will apparently do whatever is necessary to suppress the truth about what really happened in the Katyn Forest.

Despite his initial hesitancy, Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz) eventually tells Stephen his story, but Underwood’s editor (Michael Gambon, appearing in just a couple of scenes), who is tired of the young reporter’s insubordination, not only refuses to run the exposé but fires him. Even worse, Underwood is betrayed by someone he had trusted, and as a result Loboda dies, the result of apparent British collusion with Soviet agents. Still Stephen searches on doggedly, using help from a disillusioned worker in British military archives (Ian Midlane) to gain access to secret files on the massacre—most notably an actual 1943 report compiled by Owen O’Malley for Winston Churchill in 1943—that had concluded that the Soviets were almost certainly the guilty parties. Underwood is determined to see the investigation through, but his ability to get the truth out seems doomed.

The underlying historical material for Szkopiak’s film is fascinating, but the attempt to mold it into an old-fashioned cinematic thriller proves misguided, not only because the script fails to provide truly surprising twists and the sluggish directorial approach (along with Jo Dixon’s very deliberate editing) is enervating, but because Pettyfer’s one-note portrayal of Underwood is deadening. Much of the remaining cast is similarly afflicted with an air of slow-motion seriousness, though Thorp and Midlane bring some dignified world-weariness to their turns and Wieckiewicz manages hints of tragic depth in the haunted Loboda.

For a film that was probably done on a very restricted budget, “The Last Witness” is visually quite impressive, with Edward Ames’s glossy widescreen cinematography showing off Nick Turner’s elegant production design and Hilary Hughes’s costumes.

The Katyn Forest Massacre was a harrowing event even by the standards of inhuman brutality perpetrated in the course of World War II—and by Stalin during years of peacetime—and it deserves to be better known among the public. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film simply titled “Katyń” is more about its emotional aftermath than the event itself, but it is still more emotionally wrenching than Szkopiak’s stodgy reframing of it in conventional suspense terms. The writer-director’s personal commitment is undeniable, but the way in which he’s chosen to express it is disappointing.

Still, the historical reality is itself so powerful that—like 2016’s similarly dedicated but ultimately flawed “Anthropoid,” about the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich—you may consider it worth a look on that basis alone, especially since its message that all governments are capable of lying to their citizens in the name of expediency is always worth hearing.