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

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Whidbey duo uses fencing to teach self-discipline, sportsmanship to youth

Bob Tearse and Joseph Kleinman are sharing their sword-fighting expertise with young people on south Whidbey Island.

Lily Gladstone poses at the premiere of the Hulu miniseries "Under the Bridge" at the DGA Theatre, Monday, April 15, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Mountlake Terrace’s Lily Gladstone plays cop in Hulu’s ‘Under the Bridge’

The true-crime drama started streaming Wednesday. It’s Gladstone’s first part since her star turn in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

A giant Bigfoot creation made by Terry Carrigan, 60, at his home-based Skywater Studios on Sunday, April 14, 2024 in Monroe, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
The 1,500-pound Sasquatch: Bigfoot comes to life in woods near Monroe

A possibly larger-than-life sculpture, created by Terry Carrigan of Skywater Studios, will be featured at this weekend’s “Oddmall” expo.

Craig Chambers takes orders while working behind the bar at Obsidian Beer Hall on Friday, April 12, 2024, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Obsidian Beer Hall takes over former Toggle’s space in downtown Everett

Beyond beer, the Black-owned taphouse boasts a chill vibe with plush sofas, art on the walls and hip-hop on the speakers.

Glimpse the ancient past in northeast England

Hadrian’s Wall stretches 73 miles across the isle. It’s still one of England’s most thought-provoking sights.

I accidentally paid twice for my hotel. Can I get a refund?

Why did Valeska Wehr pay twice for her stay at a Marriott property in Boston? And why won’t help her?

How do you want your kids to remember you when they grow up?

Childhood flies by, especially for parents. So how should we approach this limited time while our kids are still kids?

The Ford Maverick has seating for five passengers. Its cargo bed is 4.5 feet long. (Photo provided by Ford)
2024 Ford Maverick compact pickup undergoes a switch

The previous standard engine is now optional. The previous optional engine is now standard.

Dalton Dover performs during the 2023 CMA Fest on Friday, June 9, 2023, at the Spotify House in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The Red Hot Chili Pipers come to Edmonds, and country artist Dalton Dover performs Friday as part of the Everett Stampede.

wisteria flower in Japan
Give your garden a whole new dimension with climbing plants

From clematis and jasmine to wisteria and honeysuckle, let any of these vine varieties creep into your heart – and garden.

Great Plant Pick: Dark Beauty Epimedium

What: New foliage on epimedium grandiflorum Dark Beauty, also known as Fairy… Continue reading

While not an Alberto, Diego or Bruno, this table is in a ‘Giacometti style’

Works by the Giacometti brothers are both valuable and influential. Other artists’ work is often said to be in their style.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.