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VOD Review: Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition

April 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Dramatizing the life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (Pål Sverre Hagen), who became the first man to reach the South Pole with his team of explorers on December 14th, 1911, Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition offers a mix of adventure movie and biographical drama that is mostly successful on both fronts.

Directed by Espen Sandberg (one of the filmmaker’s behind the Oscar-nominated 2012 film Kon-Tiki, also a biopic of a famous Nordic explorer), the film opens with a stirring sequence that finds Amundsen’s plane crashing in the Arctic.

With the explorer presumed dead back in England, the film unfolds through a fractured narrative that flashes backwards and forwards in time, with Roald’s brother Leon (Christian Rubeck) serving as our narrator as he recounts the story of his expeditions to Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston), the married woman that Amundsen left behind.

The first half of the film focuses on Amundsen’s secretive mission to lead the first team of explorers to the South Pole, which comes about through a last minute change of plans when American explorer Robert Peary (Premsyl Bures) beats him to the North Pole. Amundsen reaches this famous milestone before even the halfway point of Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition, through a journey that involves relying on survival techniques learned from the Inuit and, in a real life detail that seems especially barbaric by current standards, feeding on the meat of their sled dogs.

The second half of the film focuses on Amundsen’s various attempts to reach the Arctic Circle, with his expeditions taking him away from the world for years at a time. The colonial conquests of the British explorers, whom Amundsen must still gain favour with in order to help finance his expeditions, are presented very critically within the film. In this way, Amundsen is a sort of underdog hero for the first stretch of the movie. But as the explorer’s grandiosity and arrogant need to always be first grows over the course of the film, even at the expense of writing off those around him, he shifts from being an underdog champion and into a much more complex figure.

Sandberg and screenwriter Ravn Lanesskog do a good job of pulling back the curtain on the heroic mythos surrounding Amundsen, and instead offering a more complex character study of both his achievements and his selfishness, with one influencing the other. The last act of the film explores the feeling of achieving your life’s goals and wondering what’s next, and it’s a somewhat bittersweet note to end his story on.

The film does fall into a few of the usual pitfalls of the biopic formula. Parts of Amundsen’s story feel somewhat under explored, as do some of the other figures in this story. But Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition covers a lot of ground in just over two hours, and has an appropriately sweeping feel to it at times that does capture the scope of Amundsen’s life. While some will find the film to be slow moving, if you are interested in the subject, you are bound to find it at least somewhat interesting.

The film features captivating images of the icy landscapes shot by cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth, and some good visual effects as well. The performances by Hagen (who bears a strong resemblance to his real life counterpart) and the rest of the cast are solid, the production values are good throughout, and I found the story to be an engaging one.

Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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