The Deep, a true-life adventure yarn from industrious genre specialist Balthasar Kormákur (Jar City, Contraband), actually pre-empted 2013's more prominent double-bill of survivors' tales (Gravity, All is Lost). In years and academic journals to come, it wouldn't surprise me if these films' collective treading of water and thin air is claimed as a metaphor for what most audiences were doing in the wake of the late Noughties financial crash - though Kormákur appears to have an even bigger, more existential crisis on his mind. The writer-director goes after his story - that of Gudlaugur Fridpórsson, the Icelandic fisherman who, in March 1984, survived a night in the freezing North Atlantic after his vessel capsized - as though it were Titanic on a tight budget, and without the romance: there's no Leo and Kate or pretty hats, and for a long spell, we're left watching a fat man splashing around and trying not to throw up on himself. Suffice to say, it somehow feels a good deal truer to the panic of its source.
Here are a crew setting out from their remote volcanic isle on the night shift in scenes that remind you once again (after Contraband) that Kormákur is one of the few directors in world cinema with an eye and ear for the minutiae of working-class life. These sailors have had a skinful the night before - there are few other forms of entertainment in these parts, we soon gather - and they bunk down in their rusting ship using hair of the dog as a hangover cure. They will be sunk, however, not by a lapse of judgement per se, rather by chance, their nets becoming snagged on an underwater rock - an everyday occurrence, usually steered out of, but not so easily dealt with this time. What's terrifying is how quickly things (over)turn. One minute the sailors are eating sandwiches and watching TV, the next they're splashing around helpless in the drink; one minute, several crewmates are clinging to one another, the next the doughy Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is left on his own, an especially vertiginous pullback into space pinpointing just how alone he is. Kormákur's commitment to the specifics of this story is evident from his decision not to cast some obviously starry Clooney or Redford figure as his protagonist, but the schlubby, lumbering Ólafsson: a choice true to the ample dimensions of the actual Fridporsson (seen during the closing credits), but one that also allows for the quietly radical suggestion that, in this instance, this man's bulk helped him to stay alive.
There's much else to look and marvel at besides: the Northern lights, for one, which makes this particular seascape an especially picturesque spot in which to die; flashbacks to Gulli's life, with some strikingly mocked-up footage of the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, with houses and flowers buried under layers of thick black dust; and Gulli's ongoing conversations with a passing seagull, The Deep's equivalent of Wilson the volleyball from Cast Away, at once a detail too bizarre not to be true, and a way to dramatise how this humble serf wanted to be remembered in the event of his passing. In fact, Kormákur's film goes further than its American counterparts in its final act - you might say uncharted waters, were there not welcome echoes of Peter Weir's underseen Fearless - in examining the matter of what came to pass once Gulli was returned from the brink, and became a public test case for happenstance. After such a draining struggle with the forces at play in the universe, might the normal life you clung to or dreamt of seem perhaps a little too normal and uneventful? To what extent is our existence governed by unfathomable dumb luck? Kormákur's earlier genre projects tended to feel a little nuts-and-boltsy; what he's lashed together here sails him and us both unexpectedly close to the mysteries of the universe.
The Deep premieres on BBC2 tonight at 12.50am.