A relatively modest, low-key tale about global refugee issues that are usually portrayed in a higher dramatic key, “The Flood” makes a somewhat underwhelming first impression. But it gradually overcomes that to arrive at a potent (if still quiet) cumulative impact, bolstered by strong performances from leads Ivanno Jeremiah and Lena Headey. A nonstarter on theatrical home turf nearly a year ago, the feature should do better in home formats, with Samuel Goldwyn launching release to Stateside VOD platforms on May 1.
Helen Kingston’s screenplay initially seems too arid and schematic, as Headey’s grimly impersonal English immigration officer Wendy interviews newly-arrived asylum seeker Haile (Jeremiah). He says he can’t return to his native Eritrea because, “They will kill me.” But the flashbacks detailing his flight feel too sketchy as explanation, with gaps larger than our imaginations can easily fill in. (Early on, the chronicle is so detail-deprived, it seems he practically crawled from the Horn of Africa and across Europe without funds, food or water.)
Under considerable pressure from her superior (Iain Glen, like Headey best known these days for “Game of Thrones”) not to surpass strict government quota limits on émigrés, Wendy is inclined to doubt Haile’s story: He may be simply an economic refugee, or even a potential terrorist, rather than the victim of persecution he claims. And despite a good command of English, he doesn’t make a very strong case for himself, apparently preferring to keep the more painful intel private.
Nonetheless, we do eventually get a better sense of what he’s been through, having fled punishment for refusing to kill a prisoner while conscripted to Eritrea’s military. (Where such forced service is often indefinite, the film doesn’t provide much political background of that nature.) The narrative grows more involving once Haile makes it to a French refugee camp. There, he’s befriended by sickly Faiz (Peter Singh) and pregnant Reema (Mandip Gill), a Pakistani couple who like him are trying to get smuggled into the U.K.
The warmth of their alliance and suspense of that passage finally make “The Flood” click as storytelling, while other elements in the script also belatedly pay off with surprising force. Chief among them are Wendy’s own personal problems: We’ve gleaned she’s coping with a broken marriage and lost child custody via alcohol abuse (even on the job). It’s a potentially maudlin, gratuitous subplot Kingston manages to integrate so deftly that the two protagonists’ extremely different circumstances are credibly interwoven in the end.
Of course it helps that aerial coordinator turned director Anthony Woodley (making an about-face from his poorly received prior features, sci-fi horrors “Outpost 11” and “The Carrier”) handles all this with an unfussy yet slightly detached clarity that resists melodrama or preachiness at every turn. The film also gets a big boost from executive producer Headey, whose role might easily have turned into a contrived device. But her rigorously restrained performance refuses sympathy, even if the script never quite spells out just how Wendy alienated her loved ones. It’s her keeping us (and Haile) at a frosty arm’s-length that makes the final developments moving rather than just sentimental.
Jeremiah’s soulful turn provides the right counterbalance, while also filling in some of the role’s underwritten blanks. (There’s no real logic to why Haile withholds certain information about his background and actions that would’ve helped his asylum case.) Gill and Singh likewise create appealing characters out of very little; as various authority figures, Glen, Jack Gordon and Arsher Ali make convincing impressions in a few confident strokes.
As an overall package, the movie does a resourceful job turning budgetary limits into a reflection of furtive Haile’s disorientation: He passes through several nations, yet sees almost nothing of them. Jon Muschamp’s widescreen cinematography and Billy Jupp’s empathetic score are primary factors in the film’s striking a note of technical polish minus any distracting flamboyance.
Though duly endorsed by the Human Rights Watch, “The Flood” doesn’t conspicuously editorialize about abuses in Eritrea or elsewhere, nor about the reluctance of economically advantaged nations like Britain to take in their escalating numbers of refugees. Its story is fictitious, even if “based on many true stories.” Woodley, Kingston and producer Luke Healy have all volunteered in the actual Calais refugee camp “jungle” depicted here.
Their decision to fabricate one small narrative rather than drag another directly from screaming headlines may make this one of the less hyperbolic screen treatments of its general subject. Yet there’s a plain integrity to “The Flood” that more histrionic recent handlings of the same themes have lacked.