The Flood

Director: Anthony Woodley
Screenplay: Helen Kingston
Stars: Lena Headey (Wendy), Ivanno Jeremiah (Haile), Mandip Gill (Reema), Jack Gordon (Russell), Peter Singh (Faz), Arsher Ali (Nasrat), Iain Glen (Philip)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2019 (U.K.) / 2020 (U.S.)
Country: U.K.
The Flood
The Flood

The title of The Flood, a drama about a refugee from the eastern African nation of Eritrea who is trying to gain asylum in the United Kingdom, is both knowing and ironic. If you have read any articles about migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe over the past decade, you have likely seen the term “flood” used to describe the large numbers of migrants, which makes sense given that, as the film’s opening title card informs us, “some 70 million people have been forcibly displaced … around the world,” a number roughly equal to the entire population of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland combined. At the same time, though, the term “flood” has an inherently dehumanizing effect because, not only does it reduce desperate individuals to a faceless mass, but it also associates them with a natural disaster, thus framing them as destructive, uncontrollable, and something to be feared.

The Flood seeks to counter such narratives by focusing on a single individual, Haile (Ivanno Jeremiah), who is trying to make his way out of a horrible situation and make a new and better life for himself (in this way, the film reminded me very much of Gregory Nava’s 1983 migrant drama El Norte, which was one of the first American films to tell the story of South American immigrants from their perspective). Haile is repeatedly described by various characters as “a good man,” and we see him doing the right thing time and time again, sometimes at extreme risk to his own well-being. The screenplay, which was written by Helen Kingston, uses the dramatic conceit of the migrant intake interview to tell Haile’s story, which unfolds in a series of flashbacks that he narrates to Wendy (Lena Headey), a veteran immigration official who is given the case because it has already made national headlines (in the opening scene we see the lorry in which Haile is secretly riding pulled over by the police, and he bounds out with a knife in a manner that could be construed as “attacking” the officers). We learn that Haile was a member of the Eritrean military who was tortured and accused of treason because he refused to execute a civilian who tried to cross the border. We see his harrowing journey as he almost drowns crossing the Mediterranean Sea, wanders hungry and homeless throughout France, and eventually finds himself in the Calais Jungle, a massive migrant camp where thousands of men, women, and children waited in a shanty-tent purgatory. There he meets Faz (Peter Singh) and his pregnant wife Reema (Mandip Gill), Syrians who have some money and are willing to help him make the illegal journey across the channel to the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, we also see the situation from Wendy’s perspective as both a professional and a struggling divorcee whose husband has custody of their young daughter. There is a great deal of pressure on Wendy to process Haile’s asylum claim from her boss, Russell (Jack Gordon), who is feeling dual pressure from both the government to maintain quotas despite the massive influx in claims and the conservative press. Wendy is struggling personally—making late-night phone calls to her ex-husband and filling her water bottle with vodka each morning before she heads to work. We know that she has compassion for the people she interviews—in an opening scene we see her slip a bit of helpful information to a woman—but she must also maintain an impenetrable, stoic face of bureaucratic efficiency because, as she puts it at one point, everyone has a story.

Thus, The Flood is essentially two stories, and while both are well acted and shot (the solid, unfussy cinematography is by Jon Muschamp, who is making his feature film debut), Haile’s story is infinitely more absorbing and moving than Wendy’s. This shouldn’t be too surprising since he endures susbtantialy more hardship—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—than she does, but her narrative is too riddled with clichés to really work. Kingston doesn’t do enough to link her struggles with Haile’s, and thus they feel a bit remote by comparison, even as they help to explain why she is taken by his narrative and wants to help him get asylum against all odds.

Director Anthony Woodley, whose previous feature films were the science fiction thrillers Outpost 11 (2013) and The Carrier (2015), the latter of which is about a global pandemic, shows a firm grasp on the material, and in only a few instances does he allow the film’s aesthetics to overshadow the drama. While there are many legitimate voices on different sides in the various debates around international migration, what The Flood makes clear is that it is ultimately an issue about desperate human beings and the question of who deserves a place at the table and who should be sent home to an uncertain fate (the opening tells us that the film is “based on many true stories”). The film may stack the deck a bit in making Haile such an upstanding, unimpeachable figure (Ivanno Jeremiah’s excellent performance offers some nuance and shades that might otherwise be lacking in the character as written), but it is hard to argue that it doesn’t present a moving, dramatic portrait of human will that trumps any of the simple politics with which we might be tempted to frame it.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Samuel Goldwyn Films

Overall Rating: (3)



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