Early 2019 is a confusing time for Mads Mikkelsen fans. Somehow there are two films scheduled for wide release starring Mikkelsen coming out within a month of one another that sound exactly the same (“Polar” and “Arctic”). They couldn’t be more different though, because while the former is an over-the-top comic adaptation where Mikkelsen plays a deadly assassin, Arctic is decidedly more artsy, calm, and collected. It’s also a much better film.
There’s always been a quiet pain to Mikkelsen that I respect. I perhaps saw it best in 2012’s The Hunt, but he exhibits it so well in Arctic. It helps because this is a film of few words, focused on survival. Mikkelsen’s character, who is mostly nameless outside of promotional materials, has been surviving in the Arctic for some time by himself. Outside of occasional utterances, his performance is entirely emotive, and very few actors have the skills to pull off what Mikkelsen does here.
It’s not entirely muted, however. We get a harrowing moment early on that sets the stakes, tasking Mikkelsen’s character with helping yet another (badly injured) person survive, who also barely speaks due to both a language barrier and the wounds from the incident. We don’t get a cheesy romantic subplot mucking things up or anything of the sort, which adds to the authenticity of the project. For its full nearly two hour runtime, we get a master course in great, practical, raw filmmaking.
The real-life Iceland that serves as this fake Arctic Circle is the perfect setting, throwing occasional and real hazards in the way of our protagonists. The fact that they’re few and far between only adds to the realness of it all. At no point did I feel like anything was implausible. We see Mikkelsen pushed to the absolute limit here, both on-screen and seemingly in real life. Director Joe Penna and cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson are with him every step of the way, cataloging his journey through this icy hellscape in a way that also highlights its dangerous beauty. This really is a resume builder for Mikkelsen but it absolutely stands on its own two frostbitten feet. If you don’t like slow-going adventures with little to no dialogue, Arctic probably isn’t for you. But as someone who enjoys glimpses of the raw human condition every now and then, I was glued to the screen all the way until the end.