Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: Jón Atli Jónasson, Baltasar Kormákur
Stars: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jóhann G. Jóhannsson, Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir
Cinematography: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson
Duration: 95 minutes
This film is about an Icelandic fisherman’s ordeal in the freezing ocean after his fishing boat sinks with all hands on board and everyone drowning except the hero. It is based on a true incident that happened in 1984, and the real life hero, Gulli, played by actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, (a larger than life Jeremy Clarkson lookalike), actually became a bit of a celebrity for surviving the ordeal. This is a film about individuals and a community that have to face the reality of their existence as well as the tragedies that it sometimes can bring.
Unsurprisingly, there are loads of survival themes and intense personal reflections, particularly for the hero in his struggle to survive. The heart of the film and story revolves around the miraculous survival of an otherwise ordinary fisherman, who spent over 5 hours in the bitterly cold Icelandic sea, which claimed the lives of all his colleagues. It asks, and tries to answer, several questions including why this one individual survived, and not any others? Also, why the boat crew seemed almost nonchalant and unprepared for the sudden manner in which the boat sank, considering they literally just experienced a scarily similar encounter with cable snagging rocks prior to the fatal snag and sink version.
After the boat capsizes, the hero is seen clinging to the upturned hull with two companions, one if which is his childhood friend, called Palli. It soon becomes clear they’ll need to swim for their lives rather than wait in vain for rescue. However, Palli is in a bad way and doesn’t take long to succumb to the adverse conditions, despite help from his friend, and our hero, Gulli.
Now alone in the sea and swimming towards what he hopes to be the shore line, Gulli goes through a spectrum of emotions including disbelief, loss, despair, recrimination, pleading and bargaining, (complete with intense prayers and talking to insomniac seagulls). When he gives up and literally sinks down in despair, Gulli experiences flashbacks from his childhood, including early memories of good times with his friend, family and even an emergency evacuation from town due to a severe volcanic event. He quickly recovers and carries on swimming; talking aloud to himself, the sea, and a few curious seagulls. Gulli fantasises about what he would do if given just one more day (e.g. he’ll be a better son to Mom, and offer solace to Palli’s widow and sons, plus he’ll pay off his new motorbike which he’ll ride for just that one day, and finally go to see a ‘special lady friend’, (real or imaginary remains unclear), presumably for that special-lady-friend type of treatment). The ordeal is shot with believable detail and it sucks you right in to the dark, cold, wet and lonely world of the hero and the vast expanse of the Icelandic sea. It uses camera angles which work to good effect when Gulli swallows sea water and vomits his dinner into a halo pattern around his head, as seen from below. Eventually when he finally makes it to land, Gulli must negotiate a hostile terrain of sharp, broken, glassy volcanic rocks which shred his feet until he gets to the first house and collapses on the porch.
The remainder of the film deals with Gulli’s recuperation, reconnection and realisation (thanks to media coverage) of his miraculous escape. In addition to the media, the medical and scientific community excitedly claimed him for rigorous tests in an attempt to uncover the secret of his superhuman ability. It all comes to a head when Gulli bests the cream of military tough guys (e.g. Navy, SAS, Commando types) in a water tank endurance test conducted in the England. He’d had enough. The conclusion from the tests came down to an observation that Gulli’s fatty tissues bore closer resemblance to a baby seal’s than most regular people and this is what probably kept him alive. The film concludes with Gulli picking up the rest of his life, including promises to seagulls, his Mom, his motor bike and his friend’s widow and sons. He eventually returns to his life and work as an ordinary fisherman in the Icelandic fishing industry, perhaps safe in the knowledge that he stands a chance against another similar incident.
Overall, probably the worst part of my experience of this film involved arriving several minutes late to the venue which had already started screening, and nearly breaking my neck trying to find an unoccupied seat in the theatre gloom. Otherwise it was a good little film, perhaps a bit dreary and gloomy, but this is understandable considering the subject matter.