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Nightstream ’20 Review: “Breaking Surface” Is A Nerve-Wracking Story of Survival

Friday, October 23, 2020 | Review

By KATE ROBERTSON

Starring Moa Gammel, Madeleine Martin, Trine Wiggen
Directed by Joachim Hedén
Written by Joachim Hedén
Doppelgänger Releasing

Written and directed by Joachim Hedén, BREAKING SURFACE is a taut survival thriller about two sisters on a diving excursion in Norway when a landslide leads to one of them pinned to the ocean floor. The aim to survive is pared down to one central problem: lifting the boulder to free her. The focus here is on realism; there are no sharks, storms or serial killers to raise the stakes. Instead, the women contend with the critical issues of insufficient oxygen, freezing temperatures, and very limited time.

Escaping her marital issues, Ida (Moa Gammel) flies to Norway in late December to visit her mother Anne (Trine Wiggen), and half-sister Tuva (Madeleine Martin). Though Ida is introduced as a mother, this backstory is not played out in the film. Instead, it is Ida’s strained relationship with her mother, who almost immediately launches into criticising her, that comes to the fore. When Anne is too unwell to go on their planned dive, the sisters head out on their own. After driving through the snow, they arrive at the dive site, lighting a fire on the small platform. Tuva is highly prepared, revealing equipment including high-tech helmets with wireless communications, extra oxygen tanks, a satellite phone, timers, surface marker buoys, torches, and flares. A loose rock tumbling down the cliff prompts them to move their belongings under the shelf, a portent of the danger to come.

Shot on the Lofoten Islands of Norway, a popular diving location north of the Arctic Circle, the film makes use of the stunning natural landscape. The dramatic snow-laden mountains that do not see sunlight at all during this period make the remote coastline feel even more isolated. This sense of being cut off from the world is increased when the women enter the water, engulfed by the dark. Having swum down through a cave, the women share a moment of awe when they spot two Orcas that begin to move towards them curiously, fleeing swiftly just before rocks begin plummeting into the water. Tuva is caught by a huge boulder and swiftly dragged out of sight. Pinned to the ocean floor, it is up to Ida to save her.

Ida’s recollection of a childhood accident where Tuva almost drowned beneath the jetty at their house reverberates throughout the film. Her guilt about this is reignited ahead of the dive and fuels her impulse to do anything to save her younger sister this time. Ida’s memory of their frantic mother sharply blaming her after reviving Tuva not only shapes her behaviour in this disaster, but establishes their strained relationship. Tuva and Anne, however, are clearly incredibly close. They dive together frequently, including at the location where the sisters are heading, their initials etched into a rock to memorialise their love.

Having grown up with a mother who loves diving, both women are proficient, though Tuva especially so, having actually found a career in it. As a professional diver, she is incredibly composed under pressure, knowing that her life depends on it. Though she is the one who is trapped, she quickly and authoritatively directs Ida, who cannot suppress her stress. The water is dark, making it difficult to see anything even with flashlights and a guideline. With the keys, phones, satellite phone, and oxygen tanks buried by the rocks, Ida is forced to improvise. Desperate to save her sister, she makes some brutal choices.

After ascending to the surface so many times in a short period, without taking the appropriate pauses to adjust to the pressure, combined with the freezing temperatures and the exertion of her activities in and out of the water, Ida is at risk of the bends, or decompression sickness. This can cause symptoms like pain, paralysis, fatigue, and hallucinations, all of which can be deadly while she is underwater with no one to help her.

BREAKING SURFACE is essentially a two-hander between Gammel and Martin, who do an admirable job considering how limited they are in their performance by their masks and the dark underwater environment. Much of the terror here is due to the face that the women have so little to work with and so much is at stake. The tight 80-minute run time ensures the pacing is swift and unrelenting. BREAKING SURFACE is a tense and nerve-wracking reminder of the limits of the human body, pushed to the extreme, and the fierce determination to surpass them and survive.

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.