The Drowning


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Drowning
"Bette Gordon's adaptation of Pat Barker's hit novel is refreshingly different."

There's a famous problem used by philosophers to illustrate the complexity of moral decision making. You are on a bridge. Beneath you, five people are standing on a railway line, unaware that a train is coming towards them. There's nothing you could do to stop the train by yourself, but also on the bridge, with his back to you, is a fat man. If you pushed him off, the train would stop. Should you sacrifice one life to save five?

The question is often looked at in terms of the opposition of Kantian and utilitarian ethics, but there's more to it than that. Most people (assuming they don't try to wriggle out of by, quite reasonably, pointing out that no man weighs enough to stop a train) say that they would do nothing - they would simply let the five people on the track die. Why? It isn't just about assuming that the five people are responsible for their own predicament. It's because humans have an innate emotional bias towards doing nothing. To let bad things happen by neglecting to act distresses most of us less that having bad things happen as a result of our actions.

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This is all well and good for most people, who are never likely to find themselves on that bridge or in a comparable situation in real life. For some people, however, it is not so easy to evade responsibility. Tom Seymour (Josh Charles) is a psychiatrist. Once, many years ago, he gave testimony in court that led to an 11 year old boy being sent to prison for murder. The decision has haunted him ever since. Despite strong physical evidence, he can't help but wonder if the boy was innocent. When the boy, now grown up and released, comes crashing back into his life, he must decide whether to prioritise this young man's welfare or act on his instinct that he's still dangerous.

There are a lot of films out there that question whether or not one should trust a former criminal, and they all play out much the same way. Bette Gordon's adaptation of Pat Barker's hit novel is refreshingly different. Avan Jogia, as the young man, plays along with the standard format, but only so far - when he finally shows us what he can do as an actor, it's startling. Tom, meanwhile, proves to be a far more complex character than he seems on the surface, also haunted by his inaction in a situation he now tries not to think about. As the pressure on him mounts, it's difficult to anticipate his choices, but Charles keeps him feeling real throughout. The film becomes as much an examination of his psyche as that of his young charge.

Complicating the situation further is Tom's artist wife Lauren (Julia Stiles in her best performance for years). One gets the impression that their relationship has always required hard work as, despite making an effort to support one another, they view the world in very different ways. Neither may be entirely mentally well, and although Lauren refers to Tom's charge as a child, her interest in him clearly unsettles the psychiatrist on multiple levels. No character here is short of suspicious qualities. Lauren tells Tom that people are not good or bad but are sometimes difficult.

"I'm a strong swimmer," Tom insists after a visceral opening scene in which he tries to save the young man from a watery suicide and nearly ends up drowning himself. In truth, a strong swimmer would never have approached a drowning person in a way that was so out of control. The scene is a metaphor for what follows, with the poorly prepared psychiatrist quickly getting out of his depth, trying to deny his own weaknesses.

Gordon is not out of her depth. She knows exactly that she's doing. Working with a story that could easily have become confused, she delivers something powerful.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2017
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A psychiatrist gets out of his depth when treating a young man whom he sent to prison for murder as a child.

Director: Bette Gordon

Writer: Stephen Molton, based on the book by Pat Barker

Starring: Julia Stiles, Josh Charles, Tracie Thoms, Avan Jogia, Leo Fitzpatrick

Year: 2016

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


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