Arctic received a 10-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, which is to say, actor Mads Mikkelsen won the ovation, the film’s first-time writer-director Joe Penna relying entirely on his outstanding acting skills. Moreover, Mikkelsen has so few words to speak, a handful in the film’s coda, it offers the director the chance to exploit his genius for communicating inner thoughts to the full.
One other actor features in the tale, Maria Thelma Smaradottir, but she is unconscious, badly wounded from a helicopter crash, and wrapped in a sleeping bag strapped to a sledge (sled) most of the time. She is our hero’s sole motivation for taking his mind off his own survival to save another, one of the best qualities of human nature.
Copenhagen born Mikkelsen began his career as a dancer and matured into one Denmark’s most respected film and television actors. I try not to miss a film he stars in because he chooses projects with great care, the intelligent and well written. To James Bond fans he’s forever the enigmatic villain whose eyes watered tears of blood in the remake of Casino Royal (2006), but as well as a knighthood from the Queen of Denmark the list of his main role films is of a higher quality: he has played alongside Gérard Depardieu in I Am Dina (2002), in the Spanish comedy Torremolinos 73 (2003), and the infant teacher wrongly accused of sexual abuse in The Hunt (2012).
“I take my work enormously seriously. When I do something it has to feel right. Everything has to be right. I’m not ambitious about my career, but I am ambitious with each job. I can be fairly annoying to work with. No compromises. Let’s put it this way: compromises are from hell. I ask a million questions, and I insist on having answers. I think that is what we have to do. I have to know what the director wants. Some are very much in their head, and I need to force it out of them. I just can’t play around for eight hours and see if something happens.
On the other hand, you can only be famous to a certain degree in Denmark. And if you’ve been in a popular TV show, you’re already famous for life. We say our ceiling is very low, meaning that you’re not supposed to stick out in any way. Anyone who tries to “make it”, we take them right down.”
Arctic is not a film to see on a cold winter’s day. In my case the Arctic was the subject of my wife’s recent Edinburgh Festival art exhibition, and with a visit planned to Iceland, my curiosity was peaked to see how the moving image compares with the painted image.
It begins in an icy, bleak snowstorm, temperature minus zero, and it’s all downhill into a crevasse after that, freezing man against the cruel elements.
Man against nature adventure films are not a new literary concept. We can go as far back to Noah in the Bible, and move on to Earnest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea, more recently The Edge (1997), starring Anthony Hopkins, poor Blake Lively marooned on a craggy rock 100 yards from the shore surrounded by a menacing killer shark in The Shallows (2016), and finally Robert Redford all at sea in All is Lost (2013). In each case the central character is faced by an existential crisis with only their own will power and physical stamina to fall back on in their struggle for survival.
For all its central cliché, Arctic is a compelling film to watch because Mikkelsen playing air pilot Overgard makes every minute impossible to second-guess. He copies Inuit habits – fishing through ice holes, adding tinkling metal on a string to warn him when a fish bites, keeping his catch hidden, gutting fish and eating it raw, sheltering in the remains of his plane, staring at his frost-bitten toes without alarm, climbing the same hill daily to wind up the SOS signal, and waiting patiently for a passing plane to spot him.
The screenplay tells us nothing about his background. We are left to create our own based on what we see and how Overgard goes about his daily routine. Obviously he is physically and mentally tough, able to withstand loneliness and desolation for long periods between sleep, used to an Arctic topography, dressed for the worst weather and well prepared for accident, flares and all.
When a rescuing helicoper crashes, (one more crash and we have an Arctic Triangle!) he is resourceful enough to cannibalise its contents to aid his survival, ropes, sledge, ice pick, cooking stove, propane, and frying pan. Finding the co-pilot still strapped into her seat, barely alive and near death, Overgard decides to leave the comparative safety of his downed plane and his camp’s safe shelter, to drag the woman on a makeshift sledge and seek help miles to the south of his downed plane.
The rest of the film is centred on the various hurdles he encounters mixed with his patient’s degrading health. When he tries to pull her up an escarpent to the top in a mountainous terrain in order to reach an easy journey in a valley below, a clear path to his final destination, the effort beats him not once but three times. With each energy sapping upward haul on his slippery ropes we are pulling with him. Finally, having no choice, he is forced to double back and take the long route. His pain is palpable.
On the long journey he is confronted by a hungry polar bear, an action we knew would take place and we know Overgard will somehow overcome the battle. For all that, the narrative is packed with suspense and tension. We watch Overgard’s mounting bad luck and increasing misfortune pile one on top of the other and we cheer him on.
It would be easier to count the words spoken in this survival thriller than the locations. Much more is implied than spoken, with Brazilian Penna allowing the fierce landscape and Mikkelsen’s expressive facial reactions to carry the lean but eventful narrative.
It doesn’t teach us much. Arctic reminds us of the human spirit faced by extreme adversity. He’s a resourceful guy – “It’s okay,” he keeps telling himself, “It’s okay”.
I have one more quibble beyond that of formula. I can forgive the rescue helicopter not being same as the one we see upside down in the snow, but Penna does not make enough of the landscape, filming in Iceland.
Where is the wonderment of trillions of stars in the night sky? Where are the northern lights to fill our hero’s soul with hope, the aurora borealis? Where is the majesty of mountains, the vast ice floes, the pink dawn etching the outline of a snow-laden ridge? Visually, what we get is all too bland, too close to days lost in the Cairngorms.
Had Arctic been a little more ambitious, four stars. Mikkelsen is the sole reason to see the film. His performance alone gets it three stars. For that, he can have the last word.
“My legacy? Hopefully my family [wife and two daughters] is going to remember me as somebody who loved them tremendously. If we’re talking about audiences, I would love to be remembered as the person who had a certain variety of work behind them and did his best.”
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir
- Director: Joe Penna
- Writer: Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison
- Cinematographer: Tómas Örn Tómasson
- Composer: Joseph Trapanese
- Duration: 1 hour 38 min
- RATING CRITERA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?