Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars as Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen on an icy expedition to Northeast Greenland
Dir. Peter Flinth. Iceland/Denmark. 2021. 101 mins.
Using producer Baltasar Kormakur and the spectacular topography of his native Iceland as a lure (‘..from the director of Everest!’), Netflix brings two-hander Against The Ice to the Berlinale Special and straight onto global screens on March 2. And a very Netflix-meets-Berlinale Special film it is too: a soft-edged, stolid blend of gorgeous geographical authenticity with a global-facing English-speaking cast whose accents range from Joe Cole’s Brit to co-producer, co-writer and leading man Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s mid-Atlantic purr.
This is a passion project pushed along by Coster-Waldau
If you can buy this pair as a mis-matched Icelandic engineer and Danish explorer of the early 20th century, respectively, well, hop on board the bobsleigh for this based-on-real-life drama about the stubborn Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen (Coster-Waldau) who is determined to find proof that Northeast Greenland is not an island and thus retain it for Denmark in the face of American territorial claims. Cole’s inexperienced Iver Iversen, picked up in Rekyavik to fix the engine, becomes his companion in a Quixotic dash across the ice which would end up stranding the pair for the best part of three years. Just don’t get too attached to the huskies.
Certainly, a centuries-old boundary dispute between Denmark and the United States is not a particularly gripping peg to hang a film on - that element might play better in the film’s co-production territories. Battling dodgily-rendered polar bears and facing down madness, not to mention eating dog liver, in order to bring back hand-drawn maps to Charles Dance’s frosty government minister in Copenhagen seems a rather extreme colonial pursuit these days - when you might battle the ice to save the polar bears and return the land to the Inuit. Still, there’s always an audience for stories about men who face down the elements and lose their toes in the process. And the scenery is, well, out of this world.
Director Peter Flinth sets his story in 1909 - although you can hardly tell that from the anachronistic dialogue - when Denmark’s Arctic Expedition is on a mission to find proof that Greenland is one land mass, not two. Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen’s team have failed to find documents left behind in a cairn by a previous, failed, voyage, and now he opts to make a last-ditch attempt to cross the ice by himself to fulfil his mission. He’s a gruff, stubborn type, surprised when Cole’s Iversen volunteers to accompany him. If the pair doesn’t make it back before winter, the expedition crew will leave without them, stranding the mis-matched couple on base camp until the aforementioned Dance can be persuaded to finance another trip to see if they’re alive.
Thus the film is neatly cut in two. Find the map and get back; survive. Peril comes from the ratty looking bears and the rather more convincing weather. There’s the part where they bury the map in another cairn, and go back to fetch it, missing the rescue expedition in the process – frustrating for them, not to mention the audience. By the end, they’re fighting madness, and each other, although Iversen is always the subservient Icelandic deckhand to Mikkelsen’s Danish captain, with all the echoes of Danish colonialism in the region that entails. There’s barely a growth curve between the couple, just a quest to survive, although somewhere along the way Mikkelsen realises that leaving his fiancé behind was possibly as dumb a move as burying the map in the cairn. Needless to say, he doesn’t turn to Iversen for comfort in that way.
Remarkable mostly because of its crisp lensing by Torben Forsberg, this is a passion project pushed along by Coster-Waldau some years after his Game Of Thrones popularity has peaked. His audience, though, still remains out there in streamer-land, and they’ll be the ones to seek this out, if not quite cross the ice to get to it.
Production company: RVK Studios, Ill Kippers
International distribution: Netflix
Producers: Baltasar Kormakur, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Screenplay: Joe Derrick, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from the memoirs by Ejnar Mikkelsen
Cinematography: Torben Forsberg
Production design: Atli Geir Gretarsson
Editing: Morten Højbjerg
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Main cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole, Sam Redford, Ed Speleers, Charles Dance