British drama The Flood opens with statistics about refugees worldwide, before a disclaimer that states, “This film is based on many true stories.” The movie isn’t a dramatization of any specific real-life events, but it does have a very pointed message about the treatment of refugees. That message is delivered via a drama that is sometimes heavy-handed and overwrought, but just as often subdued and careful, not the kind of lecture that could result from a movie that puts its lessons ahead of its narrative.
The entry point for the story isn’t a refugee but an employee of the U.K.’s agency that processes asylum claims. Putting a recognizable face on that character helps draw the audience in, and Lena Headey gives a strong performance as someone who is more of a plot device than a person. Headey’s Wendy is apparently the most efficient claims processor at the agency, praised by her boss (Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Iain Glen) for her effectiveness and her dispassionate analysis. But Wendy’s personal life is a mess: She’s going through a painful divorce and hasn’t been able to see her young daughter for months, and she fills her water bottle with vodka before heading in to the office.
But her resolve is challenged when she’s faced with the case of Eritrean refugee Haile (Ivanno Jeremiah), a polite and well-spoken man who calmly answers all her questions and lays out his harrowing story of survival on his journey from his native country to the U.K. (“Everyone’s got a story,” Wendy says dismissively, but it’s clear that Haile is about to break through her cold exterior.) The movie really belongs to Haile, who recounts his ordeal in flashbacks while sitting handcuffed across the table from Wendy after being arrested for assaulting a police officer.
He begins in Eritrea, where he was in the military and charged with treason for refusing to execute a civilian for attempting to cross the border. Haile himself was then tortured, and nearly died dragging himself across the desert, before finally boarding a malfunctioning raft that started to sink before reaching European shores (lending the film its title, and a recurring motif for Haile’s nightmares). Befitting the movie’s “many true stories” designation, Haile’s ordeal is a bit like a greatest-hits rendition of refugee experiences, but Jeremiah’s grounded performance gives it enough specificity that it doesn’t feel like a series of talking points.
Director Anthony Woodley convincingly stages Haile’s odyssey across continents within the constraints of his small-scale production. However, the timeline is sometimes confusing and vague. In particular, it takes a little while to understand where Haile has ended up during the longest stretch of his flashback, in which he’s living in the French refugee camp known as the “Calais jungle.” That’s where he meets Pakistani refugee Faiz (Peter Singh) and Faiz’s pregnant wife Reema (Mandip Gill), who are the first people to show him kindness. They connect him with a trafficker who can smuggle all three of them into the U.K.
The mysterious reason for Haile’s attack on the police officer when he was discovered in the back of a truck hangs over most of the flashback section, and Woodley and screenwriter Helen Kingston build a decent amount of suspense without resorting to too much cheap manipulation. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t pull on the heartstrings, though, especially in its depiction of Faiz and Reema, who are burdened with all the tragedy that Haile narrowly avoids. Faiz has the pale look of a sickly orphan in a 1940s melodrama, along with the telltale movie cough of death (complete with bloody handkerchief). And there’s an especially underhanded fake-out about the status of Reema’s unborn baby that really stretches audience sympathy.
Mostly, though, sympathy stays with Haile throughout, so much so that Wendy’s change of heart is all but inevitable. Watching her deal with her parenting and relationship problems after spending so much time with Haile in life-or-death straits is fairly underwhelming, despite Headey’s sensitive portrayal. The filmmakers emphasize the heartless bureaucracy of the asylum system, but then they rig their story for a triumphant outcome, and that doesn’t necessarily make their case as powerful as it could be.
In the end, The Flood isn’t quite successful as drama, and it isn’t quite successful as social commentary, either. It has its moments when it succeeds in one area, but rarely do the two elements come together in the way that the filmmakers are aiming for. The actors make the characters feel real, even if they are composites of figures from dozens of reports, but the situations almost always come off as manufactured. Maybe instead of taking on “many true stories,” the filmmakers could have gotten their point across with just one.
Starring Lena Headey, Ivanno Jeremiah, Iain Glen, Peter Singh and Mandip Gill, The Flood is available beginning May 1 on VOD.
The Flood isn’t quite successful as drama, and it isn’t quite successful as social commentary either.