Wednesday 3 July 2019

Styx (2018 Germany/Austria; Dir Wolfgang Fischer)

Here's a stripped down, powerful if occasionally polemical drama with some blistering performances and a rising sense of justifiable anger.

Rike (a stunning performance of considerable physicality by Susanne Wolff) is a crash team medic living in Gibraltar who we first meet attempting to carefully extricate a man from a mangled car. If Rike looks a little distracted it's perhaps no wonder: she's about to embark on a gruelling one woman boat trip to the remote Ascension Island off the coast of Africa (the place where Charles Darwin created a green oasis in 1836); a bold and treacherous journey. Armed with Darwin's guide to the island, 'The Creation of Paradise,' and enough provisions to suggest a very long trip, super organised Rike sets off on her long solo voyage, coping admirably with storms and high winds, and confidently navigating her chosen route.

But a chance encounter at sea with an upturned and slowly sinking fishing vessel changes the whole nature of her trip. The listing ship is full of refugees, presumably intent on leaving the African continent for safety: many of the occupants cannot swim but have no choice but to jump from the sinking ship. Rike radios for help but the coastguard service warns her off - there are clearly some complex politics at work here. But her medical ethics mean that she cannot turn her back on the situation. Despite strict instructions not to get involved she rescues one young boy from the water: Kingsley (a brilliant debut performance from Gedion Odour Wekesa), first seen wearing a football shirt with 'Ronaldo' on the back, adding an extra poignancy to his situation, is nursed back to health by Rike, then promptly scolds her for not returning to the ship for the others. Rike is caught in a dilemma: with no sign of any rescue craft, and haunted by the cries of the refugees coming from the doomed boat, does she defy the authorities and attempt a rescue, or sail away with at least one survivor?

That there is no easy resolution to this dilemma is at the heart of Fischer's film. While the movie posits the question 'what would you do?' in relation to Rike's problem, at the same time it asks a more profound one, when considering the plight of the refugees, caught up in a maze of international politics: namely 'How has this been allowed to happen?'

Styx begins on Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory which itself has had more than its fair share of territorial claims, and ends literally and metaphorically at sea, with a traumatised Rike trying to make sense of what has happened.

As Rike (and is that name supposed to remind us of the German philosopher Rilke?) Wolff creates a fascinating and often inscrutable character. What is it that drives someone to undertake such a hazardous solo journey, even though she is clearly experienced - and comfortable - at sea (there is a scene where she leaves the boat to swim, which in many films would portend disaster or threat - for her it's shorthand for happiness)? We don't know, but the aim of reaching the 'artificial jungle' of Ascension Island hints at the need to escape, or achieve a level of spirituality, and this may account for her reaction when faced with the enormity of the refugees' situation. The film's shorthand hints at her change of priorities - for example, when Rike uses the ship's log not as a record of the journey but as a medical record plotting Kingsley's recovery.

Styx's symbolism occasionally errs towards the clunky: the title, with its literary connotations (in Greek mythology, 'Styx' is the river that forms the boundary between earth and the underworld); the link between Rike's quest for the paradise of Ascension Island and the same state aspired to by the fleeing refugees; the famous Gibraltar Barbary macaque monkeys, which appear at the start of the movie, claiming their right to roam freely on the Rock. But there's no questioning the sincerity at the heart of this film; it's a powerful story, crisply and hauntingly photographed by Benedict Neuenfels, lean and taught where it could have been overly melodramatic, and one which will leave you both stunned and, hopefully, very very angry.

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