Mads Mikkelsen stars as a pilot who is stranded when his plane crashes in “Arctic.” (Bleecker Street)

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a pilot who is stranded when his plane crashes in “Arctic.” (Bleecker Street)

Brilliant acting carries a story of survival in the ‘Arctic’

Mads Mikkelsen is absolutely terrific as a man who must save himself — and a semi-comatose woman.

There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in “Arctic,” plus an assortment of grunts.

As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer-director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.

One of Penna’s best decisions is to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen, has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen north.

Based on the condition of his wind-battered small plane, and the arrangement of his ice-fishing system, it’s been a few weeks. We’re impressed by his organizational skills, and shaken by the presence of a polar bear, whose walk-through cameo is enough to make us anxious for the rest of the film.

Then, the dynamic changes: A rescue helicopter crashes in bad weather, leaving behind a badly wounded and concussed woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir). The chopper also contains a useful sled, some tools, and a map. A map that shows the location of a secure dwelling a few days’ slog across ice and snow.

That slog takes up the latter half of the movie. Here, Penna steers into the stripped-to-the-bone territory of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” or Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” There is only the task, and the elements, and nothing else.

But that task becomes a world unto itself, a heroic effort that contains a moral imperative that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. That the young woman remains semi-comatose during this trek is crucial to the design — as the man faces each steep slope or terrible windstorm, it’s clear that his chances would be much greater if he went it alone.

The woman seems about to die, anyway. And yet she is still a human being. And so, it turns out, is he.

“Arctic” was shot in Iceland (and is not to be confused with the new Netflix movie “Polar,” also starring Mikkelsen). Its director is Brazilian, which is good argument against the moronic idea that artists should “stay in their lane” when it comes to subject matter.

I confess I’m a sucker for this kind of survival movie; the Robert Redford vehicle “All Is Lost” remains one of my favorite films of recent years (despite the emails I got from a sailor who insisted that Redford did everything wrong as a skipper). Nevertheless, if would be a shame if “Arctic” got remembered merely as a well-executed genre exercise.

Thanks to Penna’s patience and Mikkelsen’s soulful performance, the film blossoms with passages that transcend the suspenseful mechanism of the plot. The moment when Mikkelsen sets the woman down in his airplane for the first time, her head momentarily resting against his, is a great piece of silent-movie acting — something in his face collapses, as though all the unthinkable rigor required to keep himself alive the previous weeks melts at a human touch. He can’t quit her now.

Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from “Casino Royale” and the TV version of “Hannibal”) absolutely carries the film, even without words. With his body and head swaddled in winter gear, he sometimes has only the narrow rectangle around his eyes available for conveying a multitude of complex ideas and emotions. That’s all the space a great actor needs, apparently, because this is a tour de force.

“Arctic” (3½ stars)

A tour de force performance by Mads Mikkelsen carries this elemental survival story: A man, crash-landed in the frozen north, must drag a semi-comatose woman to a possible shelter, even though he’d have a better chance of surviving if he left her behind. This gripping film is suspenseful, but it has a strong moral idea at its core, too.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Opening: Pacific Place

Talk to us

More in Life

R.J. Whitlow, co-owner of 5 Rights Brewery, has recently expanded to the neighboring shop, formerly Carr's Hardware. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
County craft breweries’ past lives: hardware store, jail

Most breweries in Snohomish County operate in spaces that formerly housed something far different — from boat builders to banks.

Caption: Stay-at-home parents work up to 126 hours a week. Their labor is valuable even without a paycheck.
A mother’s time is not ‘free’ — and they put in 126-hour workweeks

If you were to pay a stay-at-home mom or dad for their time, it would cost nearly $200,000 a year.

Linda Miller Nicholson from Fall City, Washington, holds up rainbow pasta she just made in the commercial kitchen at her Fall City home, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.  The rainbow wall behind her is in her backyard. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle TImes/TNS)
This King County woman’s rainbow pasta signals her values

Linda Miller Nicholson sculpts colorful noodles that reflect her personality and pro-LGBTQ+ pride.

CloZee performs during the second day of Summer Meltdown on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019 in Darrington, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The psychedelic fest Summer Meltdown is back — and in Monroe

The music and camping event is on for July 28-31, with a new venue along the Skykomish River.

Rotisserie chicken is paired with butter beans, dried dates and arugula in this simple salad dressed in a smoky vinaigrette. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
Winter chicken salad packed with good-for-you greens

Served with crusty Italian bread and a glass of pale ale, it makes a quick and easy supper.

How to cultivate inner peace in the era of COVID, insurrection

Now more than ever, it’s important that we develop and practice relaxation and mindfulness skills that calm our minds and bodies.

Budapest’s House of Terror.
Cold War memories of decadent Western pleasures in Budapest

It’s clear that the younger generation of Eastern Europeans has no memory of the communist era.

Gardening at spring. Planting tree in garden. Senior man watering planted fruit tree at his backyard
Bare root trees and roses have arrived for spring planting

They’re only available from January through March, so shop early for the tree or rose you want.

Help! My Expedia tour credit is about to expire

Kent York cancels his tour package in Norway that he booked through Expedia after the pandemic outbreak. But the hotel won’t offer a refund or extend his credit. Is he about to lose $1,875?

Most Read