BFI London Film Festival: Arctic

Directed by Joe Penna
Starring Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smáradóttir
Screening at LFF October 11th, 12th and 17th 2018

by Richard Hamer

The lone survivor of a plane crash deep in the remote Arctic, an unnamed pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) walks his daily routine: Check the fish traps, climb the surrounding hills in search of a radio signal, continue to dig out the vast S.O.S. sign that overlooks the wreck that brought him here.

Director Joe Penna’s feature-length debut, Arctic is a triumph of slow-burning, gut-wrenching cinema. Cleverly forgoing the actual crash, we are dropped directly into a routine already established; it’s unclear how long the pilot has been here, where he was going, or why he crashed. It’s simply compelling just to watch a competent person at work. A man alone, but one who appears relatively unphased by their situation. But when the harsh winds down a helicopter trying to rescue him, he embarks on an impossible journey: drag himself, his supplies and the badly wounded, comatose co-pilot of the helicopter across hundreds of miles of frozen tundra to a supply base almost a week away.

Told almost entirely without dialogue, Arctic is an incredible testament to the power of the human spirit. But it is also a test of its limits: The further the pilot travels, the worse his situation gets. The weather, the terrain and the wildlife slowly rob him of his supplies, his strength. The burden of the helicopter co-pilot, who cannot wake up, who likely will not even survive, begins to look increasingly ridiculous. There is a wonderful tension at the heart of the movie, between your overwhelming sympathy for their situation, his kindness, and the growing sense of fatalism: The certain notion that his kindness will get them both killed. It’s a tension that makes every setback heartbreaking, tear-inducing.

Mads Mikkelsen is every bit as good as you might expect, being one of the few actors alive able to deliver an entire dramatic performance simply using the look in his eyes. It’s the small gestures that make the movie, that betray his utter desperation, his grief, and the conflict that comes from knowing that the burden you carry may get you killed, even if it’s the only reason that – as he keeps repeating – “you are not alone”.

Arctic is a largely quiet movie, driven by a single, understated performance. But it is never slow, and never boring. Not a second is wasted; every foot of ground earned in struggle, as essential as the one before it and the one to come, each a test on the path to uncertain rescue.


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