Arctic survival dramas have lately been well-represented on television, with the gripping first season of AMC’s anthology series The Terror and more recently, the same network’s The North Water. The raw brutality, bone-chilling tension and superlative acting of those shows makes the lifeless treatment of a historic expedition all the more disappointing in Netflix’s Against the Ice. Starring and co-written by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, this is a potentially fascinating true story in which the pedestrian script and journeyman direction mislay the suspense — unless ropey CG polar bears give you a thrill.
Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick adapted the English-language screenplay from Mikkelsen’s book about leading the 1909 Alabama Expedition, spending three grueling years securing proof that the northeastern part of Greenland was not separated by a channel and therefore was invulnerable to American attempts to claim it. A previous expedition from 1906, led by Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, had ended in tragedy. But a diary and map found by Mikkelsen indicated that Mylius-Erichsen had placed his definitive findings in a cairn, built in a remote spot on the forbidding landscape. Those records were essential to end any territoriality dispute between Denmark and America.
Against the Ice
The Bottom Line
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special) Release date: Weds., March 2 Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole, Heida Reed, Gísli Örn Garðarsson, Sam Redford, Diarmaid Murtagh, Edward Speleers, Frankie Wilson, Charles Dance Director: Peter Flinth Screenwriters: Joe Derrick, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, based on the book Two Against the Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen
1 hour 43 minutes
At the start of the film, Mikkelsen returns from his first abortive trip by dog sled across the ice cap with a fellow explorer, Jorgensen (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), whose toes are so frost-bitten they have to be removed. Understandably, the captain has trouble finding volunteers to return. But an inexperienced Icelandic mechanic, Iver Iversen (Joe Cole), offers his services, and given that the Alabama is going nowhere for now, he has no duties on board.
Neither the writers nor director Peter Flinth seem at all concerned with period authenticity. It’s jarring enough that half the Scandinavian crew speak like working-class Brits, but they also drop one clanging anachronism after another.
Iversen is a kind soul, so naturally he bonds with the dogs that will be hauling their provisions, even if crew members more seasoned at sledging in 40-below conditions advise him not to get too attached. “Check out Iver,” they say, warning him about the “scary shit” out there. One wit comments of the dogs: “If they were any more inbred they’d be sandwiches.” Really?! This is 1909, remember. Later, back in Copenhagen, Charles Dance — playing a stuffed-shirt government minister hedging about funneling more money into the expedition — asks Jorgensen, “Do you mind if we walk and talk?” Thank you, Aaron Sorkin.
But it’s less the unconvincing dialogue that sinks Against the Ice than the fact that it reliably makes hairy life-or-death situations, well, dull. The film is capably shot on vast, frozen landscapes and makes decent use of a moody orchestral score. But as text flashes up periodically marking off Day 26, 48, 84, and so on through Day 865, the storytelling grows repetitive, almost inert. Scary shit like a sled dangling over an ice precipice or a polar bear attack or a plunge into glacial waters happens without much pulse-quickening variation in the poorly paced film’s rhythm.
The script may well portray what actually happened, yet it makes for plodding drama that Ejnar, long after finding the crucial documents, decides to build another cairn in which to deposit them, just in case he and Iver don’t make it back. Then when they do return to find the Alabama crushed by ice and parts of it used to build two now-abandoned huts, he gets nervous. After a nightmare in which a polar bear destroys his cairn, he insists on schlepping the 200 miles each way to retrieve the records again. That’s a lot of very samey back and forth.
While both Coster-Waldau and Cole give solid enough performances, the chemistry between them never really sparks, and the inevitable development of friendship and mutual respect feels more like rote plot mechanics than anything heartfelt. Some of the shakiest drama comes as Ejnar’s sanity begins to falter and visions of his sweetheart from back in Denmark, Naja (Heida Reed), invade his reality. Only humble, honest Iver’s common sense and compassion save them from calamity.
In the end, the most remarkable thing about Against the Ice is that a real-life story of two men at the mercy of the unforgiving elements, of hunger and illness, possible attack and encroaching madness, can be so curiously deprived of tension.