I’d happily watch Mads Mikkelsen sit in silence for an hour and a half. Whether he’s playing a weepy-eyed Bond villain, an alcoholic teacher, or the bloke who designed the Death Star, the Danish actor imbues all of his performances with a sort of brooding intensity that often transcends the need for any form of dialogue. That’s exactly why he’s the perfect casting for Arctic, an icy survival drama in which his deserted protagonist has no one to speak to, aside from himself, a barely conscious helicopter co-pilot and a very angry polar bear.
Directed by Joe Penna, a former YouTuber making his feature debut, Arctic was initially screened at Cannes in 2018, but later went under the radar thanks to a limited theatrical release. Those who seek it out, though, will be treated to Mikkelsen’s finest performance yet. He’s excellent in The Hunt and Another Round, but here is a role that allows him to reach new emotional depths, expressing loneliness, fear, hope and despair with the most subtle of facial movements – and then effortlessly upping the ante when his quest for survival takes a more extreme turn. He is in fact so natural and convincing, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was actually stranded in this frozen-over hell.
All we know about his character is that he’s called Overgård, and that he’s a pilot of some description. However, when we meet him at the beginning of the film, it becomes immediately apparent that he won’t be doing much flying, given that his plane has crash-landed in a remote part of the Arctic. We don’t know how long he’s been there, but it’s long enough for him to have fashioned the remains of his aircraft into a cosy little shelter.
There’s something oddly therapeutic about Overgård’s isolated existence. In his solitude, he has built himself a regimented daily routine, catching fish from the water holes he’s drilled into the ice, sending out distress signals on a portable transmitter and maintaining the massive SOS sign he has carved into the snow. If it weren’t for the ever-present threat of frostbite and death, some travel agencies would probably advertise this as an idyllic getaway.
In one of my favourite scenes, Overgård plucks an enormous Arctic trout from his ice hole and promptly cooks it with some salvaged instant noodles. It’s the tastiest and warmest meal he’s had in ages, and witnessing Mikkelsen’s sheer disbelief at its deliciousness is a magical thing to behold.
Like a fine fish stew, though, the plot soon thickens when a helicopter – which should be his ticket out of the tundra – ends up crashing right in front of him. The pilot is dead, but the co-pilot (played by Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) is just about clinging on to life, albeit unconscious with a huge gash across her stomach. With barely enough medical supplies to keep her alive, Overgård makes the executive decision to strap his newfound companion to a sled and trek towards a distant outpost in the north, knowing full well that the treacherous journey will most likely afford them the same fate as Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
It’s an unrelenting mission, bringing to mind the sort of suffering witnessed in 127 Hours and The Revenant. There’s even a moment that feels directly inspired by the former, coming as a cruel twist of fate just seconds after Overgård is given a whiff of hope. As for that latter comparison, Mikkelsen doesn’t get to sleep inside the carcass of a frozen horse, but he does come face to face with an actual, real-life polar bear. No CGI or practical effects required. By my reckoning, that makes him infinitely harder than Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s quite amazing to think that Arctic is Penna’s first feature-length film. He’s so assured in every decision he makes, and the twists and turns are paced so perfectly that you simply can’t afford to look away from the screen. Though a juggernaut performance does virtually all the heavy lifting (quite literally at times), this is still an incredibly authentic and poignant exploration of the human will to survive, one that translates the world over thanks to its refreshing lack of dialogue. If someone told you this was the work of an award-winning director, you’d probably believe them.
Arctic is available on Hulu in the US and Amazon Prime Video in the UK