Saturday 20 April 2019

Arctic (Iceland 2018: Dir Joe Penna)

A man known only as H. Overgård - gleaned from the name on his uniform and messages he leaves - has crash landed his prop plane in the Arctic wastes (actually Iceland - the film was supported by the Icelandic Ministry for Industry and Innovation). His co-pilot is dead, a small pile of rocks denoting his makeshift grave.

When we first meet Overgård he is clearing snow to keep visible a huge SOS sign he hopes will be seen from the air. We have no knowledge of how long the pilot has been stranded; we see that one of his toes has been lost to frostbite and he has had sufficient time to create a daily routine, marked by the alarm on his watch, where he alternately eats (raw fish), sleeps, and sends out distress messages on a hand cranked communicator, while his eyes desperately search the skies.

As a fierce snowstorm whips itself into a frenzy, hope arrives in the shape of a helicopter, but, attempting to land and rescue Overgård, it's caught in the blizzard and crashes on the mountainside. One of the two person crew is dead but the other, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), is still alive, although she has sustained severe internal injuries. The crashed chopper contains a detailed map of the terrain - the first time that Overgård has been able to work out where he is - and he calculates that a potentially occupied substation on the other side of the mountain range is their best chance of survival. Leaving the fuselage of his crashed plane, which provided shelter, warmth and protection from predatory polar bears, he sets out on foot for the station, dragging a sled containing the chopper's barely alive co-pilot.

Astonishingly Arctic is Joe Penna's debut feature; he's made a movie that is certainly a brave choice - ninety minutes of one man's battle against the frozen elements - but the director plays all the right notes; it's a gruelling but strangely uplifting take on Robinson Crusoe, where Overgård's Man Friday is a woman who functions not as a companion but possibly a physical manifestation of his guilty conscience (it was after all his distress call that caused the helicopter crash) and his cross to bear; in one scene Overgård realises that the most direct route to the substation is not navigable with his stretchered charge and therefore must find an alternative route which doubles the length of the journey.

Mads Mikkelsen's performance as Overgård is extremely impressive, not least for his non starry approach to the role. Virtually voiceless, his sense of desperation and increasing hopelessness is almost entirely conveyed by his eyes. 2015's The Revenant was the film that kept inviting comparisons as I watched this. Arctic emerges as a far superior man-battles-the-elements movie, not least because Overgård's character is far more believable than Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass and the landscape feels more credibly threatening. Arctic also features a one on one with a polar bear that for my money beats DiCaprio's extended CGI scrap in The Revenant hands down.

Arctic sustains its tension perfectly - with one setting and little 'action' there was a risk of a kick in of the law of diminishing returns - particularly in the hands of a first time director. But while the film is essentially a series of hurdles for Overgård to overcome the film doesn't feel episodic, and Mikkelsen's gradual physical deterioration lends the movie a real sense of humanity. Aided by some breathtaking photography from Tómas Örn Tómasson and a superb, glacial soundtrack by Joseph Trapanese (who scored The Greatest Showman back in 2017) Arctic is a worthy addition both to Mikkelsen and Penna's CVs and one I strongly recommend.

Arctic is out in cinemas and on digital from 10th May 2019.

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