The Flood (2019)

The premise of The Flood doesn’t sound like box office magic: a film that’s centred around an Eritrean asylum-seeker’s interview with a hardened British immigration official. The producers admitted that it was very tough to find funders for even the modest £3 million budget. However, the casting of Lena Headey – aka Cercei Lannister in Game of Thrones – should ensure a few more bums on seats, and this film deserves not to sink without a trace.

Those who do take the plunge will discover a well-made drama that crucially doesn’t wade in sensation and sanctimony. Given the life-or-death subject matter The Flood could easily have been emotionally manipulative and condescendingly preachy; instead it is surprisingly thoughtful and understated. It’s not a perfect film – there are some minor plot points that feel a little contrived – but it’s well crafted, the two lead actors are excellent and it’s frequently compelling. It humanises a world that we don’t normally experience, except in the spiteful rhetoric of tabloid vilifications.

Lena Headey plays Wendy, a UK immigration case-officer working in a department under pressure to meet Government-stipulated quotas. She interviews Haile (Ivanno Jeremiah), an immigrant who entered the UK illegally. Haile had resisted arrest when the police found him in the cargo of a lorry that had just crossed the Channel. He claims his life would be in danger if he were returned to his home although he has no proof to support this, and his case is significantly weakened by his violent behaviour at the moment of his capture. During the interview Haile tells his story, illustrated in the film by flashbacks, and Wendy has to decide whether he is telling the truth.

Lean Headey, Ian Glen and Ivanno Jeremiah in the interview room

The bulk of the film is based in the interview room, a shabby grey uninspiring box, but this is really just a mechanism to depict Haile’s story via a series of flashbacks, from his experiences in Eritrea to the moment of his arrest in Kent, via a perilous Mediterranean crossing in a dinghy and a spell in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp. It’s a compelling story and film’s careful production design and camera work suggest more than the budget can afford to show.

Although fictional, Haile’s story is a composite of the experiences of many asylum seekers; the filmmakers sourced information from Human Rights Watch and other organisations. It feels convincing. Because we see his experiences via flashbacks rather than just by hearing Haile’s words, the audience is in little doubt that his tale is true. The film hangs on whether Wendy believes him rather than on whether or not Haile is lying.

Ivanno Jeremiah plays Haile with quiet dignity even when at his most desperate

Ivanno Jeremiah plays Haile with charm and a quiet dignity that makes his narrative compelling. He is not naive, but his kindness and humanity are obvious. More than once we are convinced that he is a good man, by his choices and actions during his journey and also by Jeremiah’s performance. His humour and apparent honesty threaten to break through Wendy’s world-weary and cynical armour, but also encourage the viewer warm to him.

Wendy is going through an emotionally turbulent time

Wendy has her own troubles. We first see her at home surrounded by unpacked cardboard boxes on the phone to her estranged husband desperate to speak to her daughter; they’re going through the painful negotiations of a drawn-out divorce. She’s developed an alcohol problem and she is despairing and lonely. She’s somehow managed not to let her private troubles affect her work and is respected for her clinical, hardened ability to process and reject asylum cases. However, she’s beginning to break emotionally and her boss is concerned that her circumstances are making her too sympathetic to Haile’s application.

It’s inevitable that Wendy’s troubles are dwarfed by the drama of Haile’s experiences with its long journey and dangers, and this threatens to unbalance the film. However, Lena Headey gives a convincing and subtle performance that keeps things on track. Interestingly she said that although she, Jeremiah and the film crew had done a lot of research into refugees and asylum seekers – including visiting the Jungle – she hadn’t spoken with any immigration case officers to understand how they might be numbed by the relentless pressures of the job. Despite this, she plays Wendy with a subtle realism and doesn’t fall into the cliche of the cynical alcoholic ‘cop’ tainted by the job. Wendy’s personal experiences, her acute loneliness and of being a childless mother, give her an emotional connection to Haile’s tale and frames the audience’s perspective.

Haile’s dangerous journey echoes that of thousands of desperate asylum seekers

The film loses some energy in the final sections after Haile has told his story. Wendy becomes the main protagonist as she tries to decide Haile’s fate and the plot’s momentum pivots on a couple of incidents that feel a little contrived. Arguably this section could have been tightened up a little, but it doesn’t derail the film.

The theme of trust is subtly explored. Through his journeys, the penniless Haile must judge the characters of those who might either help him or exploit him – or both. And conversely Haile’s fate depends on the judgements that others make about him, both during his journey as well as ultimately in the interview room.

However, the metaphor behind the film’s title The Flood is a little underdeveloped. Most literally, there’s one short sequence when Haile imagines himself in a locked room with water flooding in, as an expression of his helplessness and panic. It’s the only fantasy sequence in the film and feels a little out of place. It perhaps echoes his near drowning during his ocean crossing. However, presumably it’s also meant to refer to the ‘flood’ of refugees, language typical of the media’s scaremongering rhetoric.

The metaphor of The Flood is slightly underdeveloped

The supporting actors are good. Iain Glen (also Game of Thrones) is sympathetic but distant as Wendy’s boss Phillip, a man whose sympathy extends only so far as Wendy’s ability to meet her quotas. Mandip Gill and Peter Singh have real chemistry as a Pakistani couple trapped in the Jungle. Arsher Ali (Four Lions) has a brief but memorable role as the sinister fixer who can arrange to smuggle migrants for a price.

Anthony Woodley’s direction is competent and unshowy, allowing the actors to take centre stage. He makes good use of his limited budget so we only notice the contraints in a few scenes including the panic when Haile’s raft capsizes. To his credit the film’s tone remains understated, which supports the subtlety of the actors’ performance and the dignity of the asylum seekers he depicts.

The Flood premiere
Director Anthony Woodley, producer Luke Healy and actors Lena Headey and Ivanno Jeremiah at the World Premiere of The Flood on 14th June 2019 in London

The Flood doesn’t offer answers but seeks to and succeeds in humanising the problem. It depicts the asylum seekers and Haile in particular as real people with dignity and failings, rather than the faceless ‘other’ that is so commonly the political narrative. Carefully researched and with excellent acting, it’s a compelling and sympathetic film.

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