Marooned in the unforgiving, deadly Arctic wilderness after his plane crashes, stranded pilot Overgard (Mads Mikkelson) ekes out a desperate existence, his every waking moment a battle for survival as he spends his days foraging for food and materials, checking the fishing holes he’s carved in the ice, tending the primitive SOS he’s scratched in the Ice and maintaining his distress signal generator which he hand cranks daily all the while the spectres of starvation, the cold and a hungry polar bear serve as constant threats.

When a helicopter appears on the horizon offering the glimmer of rescue, Overgard’s hopes are soon dashed when bad weather forces it to crash. Scavenging whatever provisions he can from the wreckage, Overgard discovers one pilot dead and the other, a young woman (Icelandic actress Maria Thelma Smaradottir) gravely injured. Taking her back to his camp, Overgard nurses the women as best he can, tending her wounds. But it soon becomes clear that without proper medical attention, the woman won’t survive forcing Overgard to take desperate action to save them both…

Shot on location in the remote wilderness of Iceland, Arctic is a stunning piece of filmmaking with a typically phenomenal performance from the taciturn Mikkelson. Usually the best thing in whichever film or TV show he’s gracing, here Mikkelson is the whole show, delivering a nuanced, near wordless turn of quiet, desperate humanity, the ravages and frustrations of survival written on Mikkelson’s face and body, his haunted eyes.

The true star of Arctic however is debut director and co-writer Joe Penna. A former You Tube sensation, Arctic is a bold, brave choice of first feature for the young Brazilian director, a downbeat, spare survival thriller that owes a debt more to J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost than to more genre-friendly fare like wolf-punching existential action movie The Grey. 

Eschewing more audience friendly tropes like narration, flashbacks or dream sequences, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison stick to the old adage that, in film, character is action, giving us no easy back story to invest in and humanise Mikkelson’s Overgard. Instead he is defined purely through his actions, his determination and will to survive and, in Mikkelson, Penna has found the perfect collaborator, the Danish actor delivering a subtle, melancholic, deeply committed performance, cinematographer Tomas Orn Tomasson framing Mikkelson against the pristine, unforgiving, beautiful and deadly terrain. 

Not to be confused with Polar, JonasÅkerlund’s coked-up, balls-to-the-wall action thriller where Mikkelson plays a retired assassin, Arctic is a grim, gruelling, ultimately poignant hymn to Man’s humanity and his tenacious will to survive.   

Movie Review: Arctic
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