Film Review: Amundsen Dir: Espen Sandberg

Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Katherine Waterston, Christian Rubeck

At the turn of the twentieth century Roald Amundsen (played by Pål Sverre Hagen) appreciated the risks of extreme weather conditions in the polar regions, and how the region’s indigenous peoples survived such conditions.

As he states to a room of Brits, “I hear people say a lot of things of things about the Inuit, that they are lazy for example, well they are not lazy, they are smart. They know that if you hurry too much you sweat to much, and if you sweat too much in freezing temperatures, well that could mean the end of your life”.

Amundsen is based on the true story of the life of the Norwegian explorer, directed by Norwegian Espen Sandberg and written by Ravn Lanesskog.

Born to ship owners and captains, Amundsen had a feverish and unrelenting desire to explore the North Pole since he was a teenager. The film portrays his story not of one of exploration as such, but as one of an insatiable competitive desire to be the first to reach the poles.

After leading the first successful crossing of Canada’s Northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, he begins to plan and fundraise for an expedition to the North Pole. Severely disappointed on hearing that Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had both separately claimed the title as first reach the North Pole from different voyages, Amundsen secretly decided to head his crew to Antarctica in the race to be the first humans to set foot at the South Pole. Only notifying his supporters of his change of intentions after it was too late, as joked on the ship “no one has been more diametrically opposed to their stated goal, that’s amusing”.

His voyage is a relatively smooth one, ending successfully in 1912. The film portrays Amundsen’s frustration and bitter disappointment in not receiving the fanfare he expected to, particularly from the English. After Robert F. Scott and companions died attempting same voyage, Amundsen was denigrated publicly for effectively “making the trip look too easy” by planning extensively and following indigenous modes of transport in glacial conditions such as mastering the use of dogs and skis,

The film is narrated via a conversation between Amundsen’s brother Leon (Christian Rubeck), and his Amundsen’s lover Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston), as they sit in the dark living room of Amundsen’s home on a cold night waiting on Roald to return from a later voyage. Waterson’s acting held up the recent mini-series The Third Day and is a great casting choice here. The film also humanises Amundsen as more than just a dogged and intrepid captain of the ice. The film explores his frayed relationship with his brother as well as his romance with Kristine Elisabeth (‘Kiss’) Bennett, a married woman he had a long relationship with before Bess.

I really enjoyed the subdued use of colour in the film. The cinematography is stunning without over saturation. This suits the tempered mood of the film, it’s a bit dark and tense but without overdramatising the story. Not knowing anything about Amundsen prior to watching, I really enjoyed the film both as a history lesson and a piece of film making that stands well on its own.

Andy Baker