Half sisters Ida and Tuva’s adventure to a Norwegian fjord goes horribly wrong when one of them is pinned to the ocean floor under a rogue boulder, and the other runs against the ticking clock to save her sister and herself.
There are many things a viewer might deem to be criminal, and one such criminal act is situating a survival drama in possibly one of the most visually stunning locations imaginable. What possibly could go wrong when surrounded by the impossibly austere Norwegian snow capped mountains far from the maddening crowds? A lot, as it turns out on Swedish writer-director Joachim Hedén’s survival drama Breaking Surface.
Two half-sisters reunite during a Christmas holiday. The elder, Ida (Moa Gammel) is struggling to come to terms with her disintegrating marriage. Tuva (Madeleine Martin), the younger sister, is a professional diver. They decide to take a dip in the freezing waters of a fjord. But a survival drama bait is predictable — it is the underdog who has to battle the adversities to rise to the top, pun intended. Expectedly then, it is Tuva who gets trapped under a gigantic boulder with limited oxygen supply. Ida’s lack of expertise and her desperation to rescue her sister sends her into a frenzy where she takes one wrong decision after another, exhausting supplies and the audience’s patience in equal measure. Indeed, her increasingly desperate missteps make you squirm in fear.
A painstakingly elaborate exposition familiarises the audience with the family dynamic. At first, it might appear to be an indulgent director’s guilty pleasure. However, the gears shift sooner than one expects, and with each development, it becomes steadily apparent why Heden takes the effort to illustrate the strained relationship between Ida and Tuva. Ida is burdened by the guilt of being unable to protect her sister from a near-death experience as children — a burden that created a permanent rift between the sisters.
Not menacing aquatic animals, it is icy water, rubble, carbon dioxide poisoning, hyperthermia along with collapsing diving equipment that Ida has to confront in order for both to survive. The tight shots of the maze-like rock formations which Ida glides through with just a flashlight barely illuminating the vicinity will give any claustrophobic hellish nightmares.
The setting is pitch dark, ominous and uncomfortably overbearing. But the scenes above the ground are no less queasy. In a bird's eye view shot, Ida sits leaning against her snow-clad, broken down car with her dog beside, the blanket of pillowy snow shrouding the landscape in a foreboding melancholy. Ida is at the literal edge of the universe with a dog for a companion, and a sister fighting for dear life a hundred feet under.
The toe-curling cinematography along with the haunting orchestral background score hooks you in until it feels too difficult to breathe. But it is equally rewarding for the viewers to watch Ida take baby steps towards charting a possible escape plan for her sister.
It almost feels perverse to state Gammel is brilliant as a hapless, indecisive sister. It is an intensely physical performance, where the actor treks on mountains, fights a ferocious dog, unhinges signposts, breaks car windows, lifts boulders, runs, hops, dives in and out of a waterbody relentlessly.
However, the camera is equally focused on Gammon’s face. And this is where the actor hits it out of the park. Despite her frustratingly poor choices, never do you question her intent. She is as earnest in her portrayal of Ida as the character is ensuring she doesn't leave her sister in the lurch once again.
Breaking Surface is also a study in masterful editing. The movie gives into injecting flashbacks and callbacks into the narrative, but they are never uncouth in their over-explanation of the storyline. They are as momentary as a flash, but serve to cheekily include an aside about our protagonist's state of mind. *Minor spoilers ahead* After a series of failed attempts at procuring the car jack from inside the trunk, she is flooded with visions of her childhood, and the failure to be a protector for Tuva. *Spoiler ends* But the sentimentality is key here, so that the audience is rigorously invested in the sisters’ misfortunes, even when the plot hurls one hurdle after another, crushing hopes with a resolute hand.
Verdict: If you're the kind who likes breaking into cold sweats and thrive in the knowledge that the end is worth an albeit excruciatingly painful but infinitely satisfying journey, then I cannot think of a better weekend binge contender.