Iceland (2018) Dir. Joe Penna

The natural human instinct to survive is a remarkable one. For some, it kicks in straight away, avoiding panic and fear during times of crisis, others tend to crumble, succumbing to severity of the situation in record time.

In Arctic, the focus is on the former. Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) is the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the Arctic Circle, using the small aircraft as his base and living off his wits to stay alive. Via a hand cranked dynamo, Overgård tries to send a distress signal out which is eventually answered when a helicopter approaches his makeshift camp.

However, a storm whips up at the same time and the helicopter is not strong enough to battle the high winds and crashes. The pilot (Tintrinai Thikhasuk) is killed but his female companion (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) survives though is badly injured. Overgård takes her to his camp and tends to her but his supplies are insufficient so Overgård makes the decision to trek across the treacherous snowy plains to a refuge to get her better care.

98 minutes of two people unable to communicate properly stuck in the snow should be a tedious viewing experience and in the wrong hands, it could have been just that. Joe Penna was clearly aware of this and despite the tremendous economy of the actual story, is able to craft a deceptively riveting tale of survival.

Other films would have told the complete story possible prior to the fateful plane crash to get some mileage out of the drama and excitement of depicting a devastating disaster to wow their audience. Here, backstory and exposition is noticeably absent, the film opening cold (pardon the pun) with the sight of Overgård already comfortable in his daily routine of fishing, scouting the area for his map and working the dynamo.

Actually, Overgård looks to be clearing a path through the snow when we first meeting him, but as the cover zooms out for an aerial view, we see he has in fact carved the famed distress call “SOS” in gigantic letters. Then it is back to checking on the fish that will be his dinner for the evening in the comfy confines of the plane wreckage and a final go on the dynamo.

With little else for him to do but wait and hope, this is Overgård’s daily routine for the foreseeable future though he does appear incredibly adept and resourceful enough not to seem that fazed by it. As mentioned above, we know nothing about Overgård but over the course of the film, we get to speculate through his actions and demeanour as to what kind of man he is.

From the wings emblem on his jacket that also bears his name we can assume Overgård is a pilot himself, whilst his uncannily natural acclimatising to his surroundings in such a phlegmatic and disciplined manner infers a possible military or boy scouts background. Everything Overgård does is textbook Baden Powell, from the homemade fires and fishing lines, to how he has set up camp, and can map out his surroundings with innate perspicacity.

The injured female is equally a mystery, save for a photograph Overgård finds in her jacket of her, the deceased pilot and a child. The few words she does manage to speak – or more accurately croak – are in English which is how Overgård’s communicates though a language barrier is tacitly implied for added tension, though this feels a little wasted as there is barely any dialogue anyway.

Her stomach is badly cut wide open which Overgård closes with staples but her condition is still critical and realising his meagre first aid kit won’t help, sacrifices his plan to sit and wait to venture across the icy tundra on a journey that will last many days. Using a sled found on the helicopter, Overgård pulls the woman through the snow but being exposed the wintry climate and indigenous vicissitudes, like an angry polar bear and the fragile mountain slopes, only hampers Overgård’s own health.

Eschewing a stirring, dramatic orchestral musical score in favour of a rare, melancholic, plaintive lament only when the mood demands, adds so much to the authenticity of this arduous journey. With little else but Overgård’s laboured breathing, the crunch of snow beneath his feet and other natural sounds, we are drawn into the moment with such depth that we forget we are watching a constructed cinematic outing.

Whilst the cast list on paper is tiny, one prominent onscreen presence is overlooked – the snowy landscapes of Iceland. Captured through an extra wide lens by cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson, it is impossible not to be dazzled by the sumptuous imagery. It doesn’t matter that white blankets of snow create moods of austerity, oppression, and bleakness, they are resplendent in their glorious, shimmering beauty.

But this quiet enemy has a steely and determined protagonist to defeat and it is not an exaggeration to suggest this is a career best performance from Mads Mikkelsen. We may not know anything about Overgård but we are never less than behind him all the way, willing him on, marvelling at his selflessness and indomitable resilience. Mikkelsen says this was his toughest role to date and it show, but his commitment to the role is our reward to reap.

Lest we overlook the contribution of Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, who may seem to have the easier job by laying down, wrapped up warm, and be dragged about, but in fact, she also has a difficult role. Quite often, she is required to be perfectly still, like a cadaver, whilst Mikkelsen pours water into her mouth, never once flinching or reacting, preserving the aesthetic integrity of her frozen deathly pallor.

Mileage will vary as Arctic superficially purports to be an unrelenting battle between man and the elements, yet is less about human struggle and more a raw but hearty tribute to human resilience, bolstered by an Oscar worthy lead performance from Mikkelsen.   

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