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Thirteen Lives review: A gripping dramatisation of an incredible true story

Ron Howard tells the story of the rescue of 12 junior footballers and their coach from a flooded Thai cave system in this new film.

Thirteen Lives review
Amazon Prime Video
Published: Monday, 25th July 2022 at 5:00 pm
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A star rating of 4 out of 5.

In the summer of 2018, the perilous mission to free 12 junior footballers and their coach from a flooded cave system in Thailand dominated the global headlines. As reports about the precarious situation the boys found themselves in grew steadily more alarming, thousands of volunteers became involved in the increasingly desperate rescue effort – as worried onlookers around the world crossed everything in the hope an unlikely solution could be found.

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The incredible story received so much coverage that a film adaptation came to feel like something of an inevitability – and indeed now it has arrived in the shape of Thirteen Lives, which comes to select cineams on Friday 29th July, before arriving on Prime Video a week later. Following on from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's captivating, BAFTA-nominated documentary The Rescue, the new film sees veteran director Ron Howard mount a gripping dramatisation of the story, complete with an A-list Hollywood cast that includes Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton.

Opening with a largely Thai-language sequence that sees the boys enjoy a worry-free game of football before they go exploring, the film goes on to cover the story in its entirety – from the initial incident that saw the team trapped, right through to the hazardous mission to get them out. Along the way, we're frequently reminded just how against the odds a potential escape was, while we also see the effect the incident had on the local community – with many turning to prayer in an attempt to boost the chances of survival.

The difficulty with films like these based on inspirational true stories is that they can sometimes end up feeling a little mawkish and cloying, with screenwriters and directors over-sentimentalising – and in some cases over–glamourising – the true stories in an effort to create a Hollywood-ised version of events. But Thirteen Lives admirably avoids this pitfall; it's a nicely restrained film that pretty much stays faithful to the events as they happened, even if some of those events seem too far-fetched to be believed.

While Howard himself can take a good deal of the credit for that, the rather understated performances from the cast are also essential in keeping the film grounded. In the lead roles, Farrell and Mortensen are superb as John Volanthen and Rick Stanton – the unassuming British cave divers whose courageous exploits helped prevent tragedy. Both actors brilliantly get across the everyman qualities of these unlikely heroes, neither of whom was used to the world's attention. The dynamic between the pair is very convincing, with Volanthen presented as the more optimistic foil to the slightly grouchy Stanton.

And those aren't the only good performances – Joel Edgerton is excellent as Harry Harris, an Australian diver whose day job as an anaesthetist proved particularly vital, while Tom Bateman gets his moment to shine in an especially emotional moment towards the film's conclusion. Meanwhile, the young cast of Thai actors who star as the trapped boys also impress, including recreating the much-circulated phone footage that was captured of the real boys by Volanthen and Stanton.

Of course, those who have already watched the documentary – or who were just paying close attention to the news in summer 2018 – will already be familiar with the story and many of its incredible details. But where the film really comes into its own is in recreating some of the moments that can't be seen in any of the real footage available. The scenes within the cave system itself are terrific, with Howard creating a tangible sense of claustrophobia that underlines just how terrifying the situation must have been – boosted by some great camera work and first-rate sound design.

The film isn't perfect: with a running time of almost two and a half hours, it's perhaps a little on the long side, and there are certainly a few sections in the middle third where it threatens to start dragging. But that's more than made up for by the thrilling final stretch, with Howard brilliantly managing to inject a real sense of tension into the expertly-staged sequence depicting the rescue mission itself. Even viewers who know the outcome will find it hard not to hold their breath as they watch the mission unfold – and it's similarly difficult not to be moved by the stirring finale.

Thirteen Lives is released in select cinemas from Friday 29th June 2022 and will be available to stream on Prime Video from Friday 5th August 2022. If you’re looking for something to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide or visit our Movies hub for all the latest news.

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