Well it’s not a dog lover’s movie, that’s for sure. Tales that involve but don’t star sled dogs rarely are.
“Against the Ice,” the latest Greenland project from Danish “Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, recreates a little-known piece of Danish survival lore from the golden age of Arctic exploration. It’s about the men who went in search of the remnants of a previous expedition to the northwest coast of Greenland. They had no hope of finding survivors. But they wanted to collect the evidence those earlier explorers gathered to debunk possible American claims (through the dubious “first to the North Pole” claimant, Robert Peary) that Greenland being actually two islands and not one huge Danish one.
Coster-Waldau is married to a Greenlander and did an arresting travel series (“Through Greenland”) on the former Danish colony, today a part of Denmark. Here he takes on the role of Ejnar Mikkelsen, captain of that second effort, in a “true story” account that barely transcends the cliches of the genre.
From the moment we meet Captain Mikkelsen, returning from an unsuccessful search that has cost his subordinate (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) his toes, gruesomely lost to frostbite, to the film’s depiction of endurance through privation, exhaustion, hardship and madness, “Against the Ice” covers too-familiar ice-covered ground in all the most conventional ways.
The crew of the wooden ship sailed into these iced-over-in-winter waters, the Alabama, have grown weary and leery of the obsessed, mission-oriented Mikkelsen. When he announces his plan to return to seek this stone cairn that a surviving letter from the dead explorers says they put up to mark where they left a written account of their findings, “volunteers” don’t exactly line up.
Given the distances involved and the navigation gear at hand, “that’s like walking from Moscow to Rome, looking for stones,” they gripe.
“Sometimes it’s best to not think too much,” is the captain’s ethos. The mission comes first.
Only young ship’s mechanic and engineer Iver Iversen (Joe Cole of “Peaky Blinders” and “Gangs of London”) volunteers for this “adventure.” And straight off, it’s obvious that this “greenhorn” is in over his head.
An ex-navy man, he’s never been to the Artic before, never had to build up his stamina to endure the unendurable. And he’s taken to naming his dogs. The other Danes, like the Inuit of Greenland, regard their sled dogs as tools to be used, worn out and be eaten, if necessary — by the surviving dogs, and by the explorers.
All that will change as Iver and the captain will face the ultimate test — hundreds upon hundreds of miles over hundreds upon hundreds of days, with blizzards and polar bears, falls through the ice and everything else you expect in tales of polar explorers.
The captain has a woman (Heida Reed) he hallucinates and eager Iver has a growing list of missteps that make him question his fitness for the task and the captain’s fading competence.
Pairing a polar newcomer with a grizzled veteran of the Arctic, which really happened, is damned convenient for the screenwriters, one of whom was Coster-Waldau. The “kid” thus has this alien terrain and the history of expeditions there and the importance of this one explained to him by the veteran.
All he has to do is ask the obvious questions he and we think of, “Why do you do it?” to bring up accounts of earlier treks and tests, related not just to the character but to us as viewers.
Coster-Waldau makes this real-life character more stoic than anything else. Even his “losing it” rages seem constrained by a dogmatic sense of duty. Cole doesn’t bring much that’s colorful or fresh to Iversen’s pluck and hero-worship.
Veteran Danish director Peter Flinth (“Beatles” and “Nobel’s Last Will” were his) delivers a film that feels approved by its co-writer and star in terms of thoroughness, but that lumbers as it passes from one waypoint to the next in the standard “alone in the Arctic” narrative.
No, you were never going to make a dog-lover-friendly film out of this. But a brisk pace is a must when you’re covering material many others have covered before.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole, Heida Reed, Þorsteinn Bachmann and Charles Dance.
Credits: Directed by Peter Flinth, scripted by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick, based on the memoir by Ejnar Mikkelsen. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42