Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir
Directed by Joe Penna
How's this for being stuck in the middle of absolutely nowhere?
Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgard, a stoic, silent man who is stranded alone in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic after his cargo plane goes down. We can tell he's been marooned for some time because he's made the broken shell of the plane quite a comfy makeshift home very far away from home where he eats and sleeps and essentially seems like an interesting solitary dude.
The Arctic is harsh, vast and isolated, making him look like a tiny ant in a giant white field of nothingness. Every day he catches fish out of ice holes, slices them like a sushi chef, and also methodically cranks up a portable communications equipment to send out a token signal for help before dismantling it when the daily snowstorm hits. It's a task borne more out of routine than of hope.
Until, that is, unexpectedly from way beyond the blue, a two-person helicopter rescue team actually arrives, evoking complete joy and teary relief. But wouldn't you believe it — the diabolically evil weather crashes that chopper too.
The sole survivor — a badly injured young woman — is unconscious and needs urgent medical help. Which means that instead of the rescuer saving Overgard, he ends up looking after her as he's faced with a crucial and dangerous life-or-death decision to make. Does he stay and wait for help that's probably not coming or does he drag the woman in a stretcher across impossibly tough terrain to a distant aid station in a gruelling trek which would most likely kill both of them?
Basically, the humane elemental man has to take on the brutal elements. He needs to overcome endless Game of Thrones-type ice country looking not like a White Walker but a Weary Walker slogging through strength-sapping snow so thick that one strenuous step feels like ten.
We know this journey to be arduous because Overgard marks it out in a map showing the obstacles of treacherous hills and slopes along the way. Before adding the rather inconvenient matter of a large and hungry polar bear lurking out there somewhere.
Now, I'm betting you this — if you're stuck in the merciless Arctic and you need someone to take care of you and keep you alive, the person you want by your side has got to be Mads. You want him next to you because, man, with ice forming on his beard, he looks just like, er, Jesus Christ with a calm face full of kindness and eyes filled with compassion.
Despite him knowing deep down inside that, oh boy, this is truly an end-of-life pickle they're both stuck in. So, with Mads, you kinda get reassuring salvation thrown in as an added bonus too.
Hey, you know Mad Mads, right? He's the villain who whacked James Bond's testicles in Casino Royale, played the evil sorcerer in Doctor Strange, ate yummy human parts as TV's Hannibal Lecter, and recently, he's been on Netflix terminating baddies as a John Wick-style assassin in a truly kicking action flick called Polar.
Arctic and Polar. Man, the cold just doesn't leave this tough Great Dane.
Arctic, let me tell you, is a really good survivalist thriller shot in Iceland that's gripping, unrelenting and so devoid of civilisation that conversely it's also so full of humanity, thanks to the spartan and taciturn no-frills performance of Mikkelsen. It's also so compelling an extreme adventure that you may be persuaded to challenge yourself by climbing into your refrigerator.
By the way, the girl (Icelandic actress María Thelma Smáradóttir) is simply listed in the credits as “Young Woman” because in this ceaseless, barren deep freeze, names don't really matter. Determination, improvisation and Mads' inspirational glumness do. Particularly when he falls through a deep hole in the snow and gets his foot stuck painfully in an excruciating, seemingly inescapable scene which pushes the rugged survivor to the edge of his sanity and demoralises even the audience.
But these intense moments of sheer human endeavour also turn out to be the movie's main flaw. Arctic lessens its realism by parading the perils of the North Pole as though Bear Grylls is right there ticking off a checklist. The inevitable ferocious polar bear attack, while being exciting to see, seems too predictably staged just to go along with the forbidding landscape.
However, we're talking, of course, about two fascinating landscapes here. The physical one that is bleak, forlorn and forsaken. And then there's the landscape of Mikkelsen's very captivating humanitarian face.
This guy virtually doesn't talk here except to encourage the injured woman. But the small movements of expression on his frostbitten visage speak volumes.
Every emotion which he internalises here — hope, joy, fear, futility, the acceptance of almighty fate — is magnified loudly through the strength of Mikkelsen's soundless, honest portrayal.
“Squeeze”, he urges the girl, holding her hand to keep her from lapsing into a coma. One minimal word; one maximum gesture. It's freezing cold in the Arctic.
But Mikkelsen's comforting warmth really burns right through. (***1/2)
Photo: Shaw Organisation