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Lovers of the Arctic Circle

Far North (2007)

Celluloid Dreams

The number of films shot on location in the Arctic could be counted on the blackened fingers of one frost-bitten hand. Hardly surprising, really, given the trials involved in working there. The makers of "Far North" filmed in Svalbard, one of the world’s most northern settlements, enduring night temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the ever present threat of becoming a polar bear’s lunch.

The results are – visually at least – rather stunning. The seemingly endless expanses of snow and blue-green ice provide a formidable backdrop to the story and add their own persistent dialogue through the thunderous cracking of the ice flow and the screeching of the harsh winds. Just when you think the film could not look any better, the aurora borealis puts in a quick cameo. This is all tremendously atmospheric; and if you happen to sit on top of the theater’s air conditioning unit while watching the film, then a regular blast of cold air up the trouser leg really adds to the whole experience.

If films shot in such surroundings are rare enough, then this is likely the only screenplay written where one character turns to another over dinner and asks, “How’s your reindeer?” In fact, it is not caribou on the menu, but an unfortunate husky, cooked up out of desperation by Saiva (Michelle Yeoh). Both she and her young companion Anja (Michelle Krusiec) are hiding out at the top of the world after running away from a civilization which rumbles away in the far distance.

Saiva is a tough cookie, but even she finds this harsh existence difficult, especially as she has to act as protector to the naïve Anja. The future looks pretty bleak for the women until the day that Loki (Sean Bean) stumbles over the tundra and collapses at Saiva’s feet. Generally distrustful of strangers, Saiva ignores her own decapitate-first-and-ask-questions-later policy towards visitors and gives Loki shelter.

Once restored to health, Loki proves himself to be very useful in hunting reindeer, which gives the women something new to eat and helps the remaining huskies sleep easier at night. He also repairs the engine on the ladies’ small boat and introduces a radio into the camp. Unfortunately, as his name might suggest, Loki also brings mischief in his wake. He is a soldier on the run from a brutal conflict and there are militia men on his tail. Then – perhaps naturally as this is Mr. Bean – the two women begin to fall for him.

Anja flirts openly with Loki, but Saiva remains more distant towards him and with good reason. Sometime ago a shaman had warned her mother that Saiva was cursed, and anyone who got too close to her would die. Having lost one lover in the past, Saiva is not about to test the curse again. Besides, Loki is from the outside world and therefore not to be entirely trusted. Despite Saiva's warnings, Anja becomes closer to Loki. Soon, passions rise, jealously rears its head, and the film moves to an unsettling and surprising conclusion.

The exact nature of the relationship between the two women is never really made clear. We know that Saiva once rescued the infant Anja from certain death but little more. Nonetheless, it seems evident that the women have not just run away from society but from the men who ruled there. When Loki enters their world, initial salvation turns to chaos once it is "soiled" by carnal desires. Students of Freud will no doubt enjoy the moment when Loki takes Saiva’s hand and places it gently on the boat’s rudder not long after he has made the engine throb with life.

The problem with "Far North" is its general ambiguity. There is no attempt to put the story into any kind of context, and we learn very little about the characters other than the basic facts. The nature of the conflict and the world the women are hiding from is never elaborated upon, nor is the historical setting of the story made evident: Is this the recent past or perhaps some apocalyptic future?

To be fair, the Sara Maitland short story on which the film is based does not give a lot away either. Director Asif Kapadia has chosen to be faithful to his source material rather than add any flesh to the bones with the result that the film is never quite as gripping or involving as it might have been. The performances are all very good. Ms. Yeoh moved from being a kung-fu queen to an accomplished actress some time ago, while Mr. Bean is a reliable presence in any film. Despite their noble efforts, the characters are not really nuanced enough to fully engage our sympathies.

No doubt Mr. Kapadia was aiming for a similarly mythical quality to that which he achieved with his acclaimed first feature, "The Warrior." Indeed, both "Warrior" and "Far North" are intended to be part of a quartet of films linked by settings which are the extremes of north, south, east and west. From a purely aesthetic point of view, "Far North" will grab your attention from the opening vista, but as a whole you may well find that it leaves you cold.


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