‘Drift’ director Anthony Chen talks about his film at Chiswick Cinema

Image above: Cynthia Erivo in Drift

Anthony Chen talks to Sarah Cook

It is ten minutes into the film before she speaks, but her walk along the beach, her lack of interaction, her lack of possessions, her evident loneliness and quiet desperation speaks volumes.

By the time she does speak, you have filled the gap with your own narrative and you kind of expect to find she’s from some impoverished West African village, trafficked via Libya, a refugee who is the sole survivor of a sinking boat, or something.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when she does speak, to find that she has a middle class English accent. Flashbacks to her with immaculate braids, make-up and nails, with her blonde best friend, enjoying life in London, make you quickly revise your expectations, and deepens your curiosity as to who Jacqueline is and what has happened to her.

Image above: Jacqueline trying to reach her friend in London on the phone

“I wasn’t sure about it at first”

The explanation is a long time coming, but director Anthony Chen keeps up the suspense and actress Cynthia Erivo’s superlative performance keeps you hooked, despite the story’s painfully slow unfolding.

This is Anthony Chen’s third film. He spoke about it to Sarah Cook at Chiswick Cinema and took questions from the audience.

“I wasn’t sure about it at first” he told the audience. “The novel is very internalised, and culturally it is very removed from all my previous work.

“Jacqueline isn’t your everyday refugee. She came from the establishment, a place of privilege, a girls’ boarding school.”

When finally she does meet someone she trusts enough to speak to about what has happened to her, (played sympathetically by Alia Shawcat), and manages to scrape together enough cash to buy a restaurant meal by giving foot massages on the beach, she insists she pays for the meal to repay the woman’s kindness. She is not used to being on the receiving end of charity, or being at a social disadvantage.

Image above: Drift director Anthony Chen talking to Sarah Cook at Chiswick Cinema

“I feel like Jacqueline found me and also found Cynthia”

“This hasn’t been an easy film to make. I’ve never cried so much making a film,” said Chen; “never cried so much developing a film, cried so much shooting a film or cried so much cutting a film.”

Chen is a Singaporean film director, screenwriter and film producer. He is known for directing the feature films Ilo Ilo and Wet Season. His debut feature film, Ilo Ilo, won the Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, making him the first and only Singaporean to have been awarded at Cannes.

Cynthia Erivo, an English actress, gained recognition for starring in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple from 2015 to 2017, for which she won the 2016 Tony Award for ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ and the Grammy Award for ‘Best Musical Theater Album’. She sings the haunting song which is the theme tune of Drift.

She was then cast as Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet and Belle in Widows, about four women with ‘nothing in common except the debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities’.

The script of Drift was developed during the pandemic, when “everyone felt lonely and displaced,” said Chen.

“I’m Asian and I believe in fate. I feel like Jacqueline found me and also found Cynthia.”

Chen is a master of the ‘less is more’ school of directing. There are long periods where the audience is just watching Jacquline moving around the island, trying to keep a low profile and not be noticed, just washing her underwear in the sea or cleaning her teeth. It doesn’t sound very exciting, yet somehow it builds tension.

“I tend to find complexity and tension in the silences” he said. “I really feel that less is more.”

So if you like that moody, atmospheric kind of film, you will probably like Drift, which I found profoundly moving. It is very dramatic, but I can’t explain why, or it will ruin the story.

Drift is on at Chiswick Cinema from Friday 29 March, with daily screenings next week from Sunday 31 March – Thursday 4 April.

Book tickets: Chiswick Cinema