Director: Joe Penna
Writer: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir
Engaging audiences for more than an hour and a half with only two speaking characters, next to no dialogue and a visual landscape limited to virtually one colour (white) would be a significant challenge for any film-maker. Joe Penna, however, director of Turning Point (2015) and Beyond (2015), has managed to do just this, with more than a little help from a raw and committed performance from Mads Mikkelsen. Stranded in the desolate and cruel Arctic snow after his plane crashes, Overgård (Mikkelsen) battles to survive starvation, frostbite and severe isolation as he hopes for the slim chance of being noticed by a passing plane or helicopter. Soon though, he is joined by another survivor, and his plans to stay alive are forced to shift into something far more ambitious but far more dangerous.
At first glance you could argue that this film is carried by the bearded and haggard Mikkelsen, and that in the hands of a lesser actor Arctic would not have gained the acclaim that it has so far received. Despite being largely wordless, and with some that he does speak being in un-subtitled Danish, it is a testament to his ability as a performer that he is able to effortlessly convey so much with so little. It is a performance wrought with emotion, subtle at first, with only hints of resignation, panic, relief and despair bleeding through his battered and frost-bitten exterior; later however, in desperation laced with pain and fatigue, a truly powerful and heartbreaking performance is allowed to burst onto the screen.
However, the above claim does a disservice to some careful and talented direction. Surrounding Mikkelsen's performance is the less obvious but equally important ability of Penna to craft a compelling and thrilling story despite an inherent lack of narrative avenues available to him. Overgård's situation is revealed to us slowly; we do not witness the crash that brought him here, nor is the source of his injuries made clear to us or even a sense of how long he had been stranded before we join him. Much like the Arctic itself, this film is stripped bare, offering us only what we can see and depending on to make do with what we are presented with; if you can do this you will be rewarded. Pay close attention and you will notice that bizarre rituals become tender habits and odd practices become obvious endeavours for rescue, and the realisation that these bring will offer you some warmth in an otherwise freezing film.
Arctic certainly is a bleak piece of film, made bleaker still by the punishing cold which is omnipresent in every scene. This is clear throughout, and through his direction Penna has been able to translate this physical sensation to the screen with startling effectiveness. At no point in this 98 minute ordeal does a single character look even remotely comfortable, and the oppressive nature of the Arctic chill is only further expressed when a small source of heat is generated; you will share in Overgård's obvious relief at this minute hint of warmth, but will suffer with him as he battles the merciless chill.
As survival stories go, Arctic is one of the more desperate and harsh that you are likely to see, but even with barely any moving parts it is as gripping as the best of this fertile sub-genre. Penna's thrifty but skilful direction generates a steady but thrumming story within which Mikkelsen, already a formidable talent, can deliver perhaps some of his finest work.
In one line: Be sure to watch this in a warm room, as Penna's icy and unforgiving tale of survival will force you to live right alongside Mikkelsen as he battles to stay alive.