Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival. In this article, Bruno Reynell reviews Joe Penna’s directorial debut, Arctic.
Sat in the cinema, the opening of Arctic almost blinds you, such is the oppressive brightness of the frozen wilderness that engulfs the screen. The harshness of the landscape, coupled with its sheer vastness, makes it a more than satisfactory setting for a film firmly set within the survival genre.
The survivor in question (Mads Mikkelsen) is identifiable only by a name tag on his jacket that reads ‘OVERGÅRD’. We find out little about Overgård apart from that, having crash-landed in a plane, he has settled into a monotonous daily cycle of fishing through holes in the ice, sending out distress signals from a portable transmitter, and carving an enormous SOS sign from the ice and gravel. It’s a constant grind, but you sense that he has settled in for the long haul.
Overgård’s routine is, however, finally broken when he witnesses a helicopter crash, and finds another survivor – the badly injured co-pilot (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir). Upon realising that he lacks the resources to keep them both alive, he makes the decision to head for a seasonal outpost several days walk away.
The journey that follows is a lesson in courage and extreme resilience. Mikkelsen gives a strong performance as someone fighting in the face of all manner of pressures bearing down upon him. Many of these pressures are physical in nature – toes are lost to frostbite, blizzards batter the landscape and fearsome polar bears stalk the background. What sets Mikkelsen’s performance apart, however, is his nuanced portrayal of the mental pressures that his character experiences.
Confronting a reality which seems a constant case of one step forward, two steps back, Overgård is impressively stoic. He refuses to succumb to the elements, finds ingenious solutions to problems, and, somehow, always seems to make progress. Yet, this unsustainable existence has clearly worn him down.
This is most apparent from his interactions with Smáradóttir’s character. When he first treats her injuries, he seems compelled to embrace her body for a short instance, to experience the touch of another human being. In a later scene, the wounded co-pilot manages to utter a couple of words. In a film starved of dialogue, it’s a particularly poignant moment, and leaves Overgård broken down in tears, overcome by emotion.
As much as Arctic is about perseverance, it is equally a film about the importance of human connection, with the characters as two flecks of colour and life, fighting together to survive in an unbearably monochrome world. Ultimately, you get the feeling that keeping the co-pilot alive is what keeps Overgård motivated, making her as vitally important to him, as he is to her.
Effectively adding moments of horror, comedy and emotion to a slow-burning journey, director Joe Penna has succeeded in making a terrifically engaging film. With a touching and well-judged ending to boot, Arctic is an extremely satisfying viewing experience indeed.