The Drifters is a stylish road movie cramped by little England

Kitchen sink realism is eschewed for colourful, Godardian modernism in writer-director Benjamin Bond’s feature debut, a tale of an undocumented migrant on the run from pursuant criminals.

2 April 2021

By Trevor Johnston

Lucie Bourdeu as Fanny and Jonathan Ajayi as Koffee in The Drifters (2019)
Sight and Sound

The Drifters is available in virtual cinemas on 2 April and on demand on digital platforms on 5 April.

A Vote Leave ensign flying on a Devon fishing boat and multiple flags of St George in the local streets pointedly sketch in the hostile environment of Brexit-era Britain, but the social context for writer-director Benjamin Bond’s debut feature seems like window-dressing for what’s in the end a timeless lovers-on-the-run affair.

As the title suggests, what’s at stake for the central characters – an illegal African migrant fleeing violent traffickers and the rootless French waitress by his side – is how to find a place to settle down.

Bond makes the intriguing decision not to situate this within a framework of grungy Loachian realism, but instead to create an aesthetic construct that draws on the visual language of mid-century modernism. Her sherbet-lemon dresses, the dashing scarlet of a vintage MG sports car, the splashes of ultramarine in the couple’s seaside hideaway conjure up, say, the Godard of Pierrot le fou (there’s even a bit of face-painting – a deliberate reference to Jean-Pierre Belmondo painting his face blue in that film?). For a modestly resourced British feature, it’s a refreshing option, and although the picture flags dramatically at times, the evident craft that’s gone into every frame provides consistent visual pleasure.

Lucie Bourdeu as Fanny and Jonathan Ajayi as Koffee in The Drifters

The central performers, too, emerge with credit, Lucie Bourdeu flouncing with confidence in the clichéd role of the Franglais-accented pixie girl with delusions of Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman allure (down to the bob wig and rockabilly dancing), while Jonathan Ajayi lets his charismatic screen presence do the talking as the laconic Koffee, his understated approach somehow serving to highlight the character’s daunting prospects.

Unfortunately, the movie runs out of steam about halfway through, in part because the criminal background to Koffee’s situation is so half-heartedly written and visualised. Teignmouth makes a very decorative lovers’ sanctuary, alternately dowdy and postcard pretty, yet the intended dramatic tension from the impending arrival of Koffee’s aggrieved, vengeful boss never really amounts to much, and the film’s climactic confrontation lacks the requisite impact.

We certainly appreciate that for these two outsiders on the edge of society, security is a commodity in short supply because they have no recourse to the legal authorities. Then again, the essential slackness in the film’s second-act suspense springs from a matter of basic British geography, where the narrow confines of these shores don’t allow enough distance between the fugitives and their pursuer, or offer an untraceable sanctuary in the wilds. Easy enough here for the antagonist to track down the lovers, and it’s why the road movie itself has often struggled to get traction on UK tarmac, since there’s just not enough road to play with. The somewhat self-conscious gesture of Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) is one notable exception, for instance, while Scott Graham’s Run (2019) in turn wrestled with the structural conceit of a road movie where dreams of freedom are stifled within one Scottish small town.

Somehow the form itself seems inherently wedded to the US, and all its myriad possibilities for escape. Take a look at Melina Matsoukas’s 2019 lovers-on-the-run drama Queen & Slim for an example of how to combine magazine-chic visuals with effective social conscience and dramatic punch. Bond’s offering, while it’s certainly distinctive within a British filmmaking context, unfortunately trails in that film’s wake.

Still, even if it lacks a certain substance, there’s enough ambition and accomplishment here to make it a useful calling card for Bond and his key cast – with the proviso that next time he seriously needs to upskill his writing contribution.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

Get your copy

Other things to explore