“I still get a bit nervous every time,” says Drew (Sophie Lowe), about to step off a narrow jetty into the sea for a cave dive. “Lucky you,” replies her sister May (Louisa Krause), “Nervous is good. Excitement’s a good thing.”
May does not get nervous. This is not only because she is a consummate professional, calm, cool and collected, who works with deep-diving oilmen every day – but also because, unlike the perkily enthusiastic Drew, May is cold, aloof and emotionally disengaged. Indeed the siblings’ pre-dive conversation carefully modulates two different receptions of a thriller like The Dive that can often coexist in the one viewer: on the one hand, the jaded, seen-it-all-before response that perceives this as just another movie; and on the other, the reaction that suspends disbelief, dives right into the film’s edgy fiction, and opens itself to being nervous and excited all over again.
These two sisters are both still reeling from the loss of their father (played, in flashbacks and hallucinations, by David Sicluna). Where Drew has moved back in with their mother, May has fled, distancing herself from both, and meets up with her estranged sister only once a year, and even then only reluctantly. Their relationship is difficult, and so the space into which they dive, and where they must face, both together and apart, intense, sink-or-swim trials, is no less metaphorical than it is real.
“Alright, back into the womb,” quips Drew as they head into a dark underwater crevasse, foregrounding the regressive, Freudian nature of their journey – and both that fissure, and the sudden rockfall which will leave May pinned dangerously to the floor, map out all at once the rift that has grown between Drew and May, and the crumbling fragility of the ties between them.
With May rooted to the spot, the sisters swap rôles: Drew must now shoulder the burden of enormous responsibility as May’s lifeline, while the fugitive May, now unusually immobilised, has to confront and work through the feelings buried in her conscience, and even ends up singing the very song (The Platters’ Only You, 1955) that Drew loves and she hates. So for all its frenzied panic, Maximilian Erlenwein’s feature, co-written with Joachim Hedén, always remains a close character study.
Like Scott Mann’s Fall (2022), except set 100 feet below rather than 2000 feet above, or like Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010) except (literally) more breathless, or like Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down (2017), except without the sharks, The Dive is a story of survival in extremis, as its two characters must contend with a big rock, depleting oxygen, the bends, nitrogen narcosis and their own deep-seated vulnerabilities. All this is filmed (by DP Frank Griebe), both above and below the surface, with an immersive fluidity, as intimate close-ups are cross-cut with alienating wide shots and aerials, showing two individuals alone and under pressure in a vast, unforgiving universe where all they have is each other.
Gaspingly tense, with its against-the-clock missions unfolding (and mostly failing) in near real time, The Dive plunges us into a precarious sibling bond. Here, as May points out, “There are so many ways how this could end, but it’s all happening for a reason.” Perhaps that reason is to help two people who love one another, but have drifted apart, find themselves again. And if nerves must be shredded to get there, well, nervous is good.
The Dive plays at FrightFest on 24 August. It will open in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on Friday 25th August 2023