3 out of 5 stars

Winter is coming not once but twice for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Against the Ice, a personally cherished project for the Game of Thrones star. This is a straightforward, watchable, rather old-fashioned adventure tale from Danish director Peter Flinth, based on the explorations of his countryman Ejnar Mikkelsen in the early-20th-century.

Against the Ice shares the slightly Boy’s Own tone of films like The Lost City of Z (2016) or The Aeronauts (2019)—indeed, a balloon figures in one of its most memorable shots—and despite its subject matter it bears only passing resemblance to the tauter, harder frozen-wastes survival movies typified by another Iceland film, Arctic (2018). But that isn’t a great fault, and if dialogue and minor performances can be a little clunky, Against the Ice benefits from great scenery and genuine surprises in a story that’ll be unfamiliar to those who aren’t Danes or exploration nuts.

It begins in 1909, with a Danish expedition to Greenland trying to find maps left by other explorers who’d perished a few years earlier in their attempt to prove the northeast of the island was contiguous with the rest, and not separated by a channel. This evidence was important to the Danes because it meant that the whole of Greenland would be Danish, and American claims to part of it would be invalid.

At first the expedition based on the confusingly-named ship Alabama fails (cue some grisly frostbite-related amputation), but its captain Mikkelsen (Coster-Waldau) and a young volunteer from the crew, Iver Iversen (Joe Cole), set out to try again. Mikkelsen is an experienced explorer, while Iversen has scarcely set foot in the snow before, and where Mikkelsen’s resolutely grim-faced about every challenge the pair encounter, Iversen appears to treat it all as a bit of a lark. Despite this attitudinal clash, however, they manage to work together—and need to, because they end up isolated for almost two years.

The bulk of the film thus becomes a Coster-Waldau/Cole two-hander, alleviated by the occasional appearances of a hallucinated woman (Heida Reed) and a not entirely successful sequence set in Copenhagen’s corridors of power, where a government minister (Charles Dance) is unwilling to release funds for the pair’s rescue. The sense of loneliness powerfully conjured by much of Against the Ice is needlessly dissipated by this visit to civilisation.

Still, Coster-Waldau and Cole do well enough in conveying the gradual changes in their characters and their relationship—Mikkelsen becoming less the leader, Iversen becoming more mature and Mikkelsen in turn trusting him more—and an eventual loosening of one man’s grip on sanity is effective if a tad overdone. Dance is as entertaining as always, even if he resembles only an Edwardian Danish version of every other Charles Dance character.

The scenery (mostly Iceland with a little Greenland, and not much CGI) is the other star. There’s genuine exhilaration in scenes of the pair racing across the snow on dog sleds, and true beauty in others where Flinth takes time to capture the sheer scale and emptiness of the landscape.

Against the Ice could be tougher; there are moments when the privations of exploration come to the fore (the fate of sled dogs isn’t skated over, for example), but for the most part it all feels a bit too comfortable, and the great distances and durations involved aren’t brought home fully.

There’s awkward dialogue, as well, with rather forced info-dumps near the beginning, modern language that jars (even if the real-life individuals wouldn’t have been speaking English anyway), and references to the contemporaneous Titanic that seem shoehorned in to remind us of the date. 

Still, it’s a well-paced, solidly-acted, occasionally suspenseful, visually appealing film that never goes badly awry, even if it doesn’t fully exploit the potential of a great, and little-known, true story.


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Cast & Crew

director: Peter Flinth.
writers: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau & Joe Derrick (based on the memoir ‘Two Against the Ice’ by Ejnar Mikkelsen).
starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole, Heida Reed, Þorsteinn Bachmann & Charles Dance.