AMUNDSEN, THE GREATEST EXPEDITION -- A Beautiful Landscape Wasted by the Biopic Formula
Review by Sarah Williams
The long-take opening shot of Amundsen, The Greatest Expedition, a thrilling plane crash, is a high that's not quite returned to. The Roald Amundsen biopic by Norwegian Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales and Kon-Tiki director Espen Sandberg is a road to an adventure that's never truly felt. Charting the lead-up to the explorer's renowned (and dangerous) polar exploration, the film falls flat when it eventually reaches the end of the world, with a danger that's never felt like that first aeroplane.
Leading the first expedition for the South Pole in 1911, and reaching both poles in 1926, Roald Amundsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) is given the Spielbergian-lite biopic treatment. Most of the film's strengths lie in galas and dinner meetings, scenes building anticipation for the expedition that feels far lower stakes than it should. Perhaps the focus isn't on the trip, but on the life leading to it, but with a team who is strongest with idolized heroes and glamorous set pieces, introspective, moody, character studies don't quote work.
What does shine in these more mundane sections is the outside world around Amundsen. The period setting is beautifully assembled, and for a more minor release, one that's taken two calendar years from premiere to US release, it's startlingly detailed and accurate. The supporting performances are worth noting, with appearances from Christopher Rubeck and Katherine Waterston livening the affair.
What's baffling here is making a film where the selling point is the expedition, and then trying to study a character that's left dull instead. Amundsen's strained family relationships, and the romantic subplot, don't give any of the actual interesting aspects of his character, the lack of fear and why he would want to go where no man has before. The men on the expedition aren't particularly characters we care about, and it all feels far too low stakes. The film is part adventure saga, part slow period drama, and it doesn't quite stitch together. All we know in the end about Amundsen is that he is driven by ego, something that can be extrapolated watching countless other works about the renowned men of the time.
With set pieces like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and the storyline of a Thanksgiving day release, Amundsen is a film that would have replayed the best at a Sunday afternoon matinee, the kind of harmless but forgettable film you see with your parents, shrug, and learn a few history facts from. It's hard to hide that it feels like a relic from fifteen years back, dated and formulaic, destined to be played in a freshman year geography class's end of year explorers unit. It's hard to judge it as a bad film, because it's not all that poorly made, this just feels like deja vu of years past, and the few highlights and surprises are never quite allowed to shine. The issue isn't poor craft, or an offensive misstep, Amundsen just that brings so little to the table that doesn't call back a forty year old formula.
Amundsen, The Greatest Expedition is now available on VOD.
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