Dir: Asif Kapadia France/UK. 89 mins.
With this dark tale of a supernaturally-tinged love triangle dark set in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle, Asif Kapadia returns to the myth-rooted dreamscape of his 2001 debut, The Warrior, after an uninspiring studio hiatus (Rogue/Focus Features' horror-flop The Return). But as a story, it's far less potent. Kapadia and co-scriptwriter Tim Miller spend too much time giving the plot a timeless, folk-tale resonance, and not enough on the crucial business of making the dramatic nexus - a struggle between a nomadic mother and daughter for the affections of a stranger they have taken in - nuanced and compelling to watch.
Far North is also burdened by a grotesque final plot twist that shifts the tone abruptly from ethno-drama to horror - and will also alienate the more mature family market that such a lush geo-pic might otherwise have counted on. As it is, the film will find itself uneasily squeezed between the arthouse demographic - some of the more cynical elements of which may find it a little too airbrushed - and the occasional high-end multiplex billing.
Auxiliary prospects look a little more upbeat. The spare story focuses on Saiva (Michelle Yeoh), an arctic huntress who lives with her adopted daughter Anja (Michelle Krusiec) in an unnamed land somewhere where reindeer roam the tundra and it's very, very cold (though somehow, even in this wilderness, Saiva manages to get a steady supply of lip-gloss).
Saiva is living under a curse, though a mid-term flashback shows that luck was with her at least once in the past - she and Anja (then just a baby) were the sole survivors of the slaughter of their tribe by a savage group of gun-toting colonial baddies. Setting up their tent on a remote snowy shore, the two women live off the occasional meagre kill until one day Saiva sees a stranger, Loki (Sean Bean) on the horizon. When he collapses from exhaustion, Saiva takes him in and, together with her daughter, restores him to strength.
The two women compete for Loki's attention, though not as interestingly as they might; after a brief, interrupted attempt on the dark, melancholy, wisdom-of-ages mother, Loki settles for the altogether more comfortable and less complicated daughter. Michelle Yeoh does her best to convey Saiva's smouldering resentment at this betrayal, but she needs more of a leg-up from the script and the languorous editing, which conspire to make the third quarter of the film oddly tension-free.
It doesn't help that all the characters talk a curious and unplaceable variety of ethno-English (all, that is, except the evil colonialist soldiers, who mix Swedish and Russian in their background chatter). Given the obvious care lavished on the recreation of authentic clothes, artefacts and customs (mostly inspired, it seems, by the Nenet reindeer herders of Russia), would it really have killed the film commercially to give the central threesome authentic dialects as well'
Still, the snowscapes that frame this Arctic yarn are ravishing, and there are moments when Far North achieves the visionary, timeless quality of a folk tale. But whereas The Warrior's similar fable-like structure had solid dramatic roots, here the conflict comes too late, and is ultimately too baffling, to give the dark fairy tale much real substance.
Shot in extreme conditions, partly on the Arctic island of Svalbard, the film looks (and sounds) stunning: it's easily up there with Himalaya for the sheer beauty of its widescreen landscapes.
An Ingenious Film Partners
A Celluloid Dreams presentation
of the Bureau production
PJB Picture Co
in association with Soficinema and Cofinova
Celluloid Dreams (Fr)
based on the story True North by Sara Maitland
Ewa J Lind