All is Lost is a one-man tour de force that will either crown Robert Redford’s acting career so far or signal his return to it after concentrating on his Sundance Festival.
The Old Man And The Sea by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Redford is shipwrecked, with no name – only ‘Our Man’ revealed as the end credits roll – no clue as to his identity or why he is sailing solo 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits. Stranded and solitary on what remains of his yacht, there’s no dialogue, no screenwriting tricks such as talking to himself, just a couple of sentences of voiceover, the first as the film starts: “I fought to the end, I know that I did.” And no clue as to how this ambiguous statement should be taken, with the ending equally ambiguous, leaving literally in mid-air – the space between two outstretched hands – the answer to the question of whether he survived or not.
In between, after the waves lapping at the start on what we learn is the eighth day, the shipwreck unrolls in flashback – Redford wakes to find an unlucky holing of the keel by a stray container load of Chinese trainers which float mockingly by – and his disciplined, professional efforts to limit the damage and save his boat as water pours in. He is a supremely resourceful mariner and it’s fascinating to see how he goes about the mechanics of doing the repairs he improvises, each of which eventually fails as he’s subjected to one unlucky break after another. He patches the hole – bad weather makes the patch fail. He repairs his damaged radio and it flickers into life – only to fade again. He teaches himself to operate the sextant he salvages but can only drift. His supplies of food and water start to run out. Rain comes, and he’s grateful for the water, but the tropical storm forces him onto the now-sinking boat’s life raft. The camera pulls back and we see an aerial shot of the tiny life raft in the middle of a huge empty sea. Shots from around and underwater show the circling sharks – the relentless life and death battle of the food chain as big fish eat the smaller ones – and then even the life raft starts to take in water.
Hollywood legend Redford holds our attention singlehandedly and though it is only him and the sea, the suspense never flags. Part of the fascination in watching him is in his economical facial expressions, which convey a changing range of emotions in response to his predicament, though don’t give us deeper insights into the man he was before the wreck. But it’s also in watching a man of his age – though clearly remarkably fit – struggle realistically with the tasks he has to succeed at to survive – the weight of things, the effort to climb the mast.
Like The Old Man and the Sea and The Life of Pi, All is Lost is surely a metaphor for the fragility of man’s existence, his endurance and his will to survive in any way possible no matter what the odds. As Our Man eventually drifts nearer to death, putting a message in a bottle, now in a shipping lane where passing container ships sail on oblivious to his distress flares until he runs out of them, he lights a fire which sinks his life raft. He sinks under water, weightless almost like an astronaut in space, until we see a hand reach out to clasp his, eclipsed by a blinding white light, an almost religious vision open to interpretation.
All is Lost is the second film by American director JC Chandor, as writer and director. His debut was the very different quickfire Margin Call, the collapse of a Wall Street bank over a 36-hour period in the 2007–2008 financial meltdown, which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. All is Lost was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 and Redford received a standing ovation.
All Is Lost is released on 26th December 2013 in the UK