Shackleton (2001)   


From the author of A&E's epic Longitude comes Shackleton, a film following Sir Ernest Shackleton's trip into the arctic in an attempt to be the first to cross the expanse of ice that forms Antarctica. With painstaking detail and a twenty-six person star cast, this film is both fascinating to watch from a historical perspective and equally horrific. While war rages in England, the Admiralty chooses to allow a crew to go unsought for over a year after their deadline. It's fraught with British profanity and thematic elements, but history buffs will probably enjoy it.


Pre-wartime England, when advances in science and discovery are highly valued. The leader of this cultural revolution is Sir Ernest Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh), an adventurer whose expeditions into the arctic have been financially successful. But times are changing. Audiences grow tired of traversing merely the edge of the frozen south and Shackleton's desire for exploration is rekindled. What if someone were to explore the arctic in its entirety -- to cross it from one side to the other, a feat no one has yet attempted? His excitement is apparent but not shared by most of Britain's elite -- whose financial aid he needs if the expedition is to proceed. Shackleton begins to gather forces in a small London office, but private affairs threaten his public face. His brother Frank has been accused of robbery and embezzlement and his own bankruptcy prevents him from paying back the sum. He is indicted and forced to serve six months hard labor in penance but because Shackleton found him the position in the first place, the authorities are suspicious of the lord's involvement.


In the meantime the explorer tediously deals with family concerns (his wife is unenthused over his promised absence), persuading investors, and finding a trustworthy crew. When at last all financial affairs are in order, they face one final hang-up... impending war with Germany. Now more than ever Britain longs to see their flag flutter above the frozen south and they receive a one word command from the Admiralty -- "proceed." With the King's blessing and the anticipation of all of England's eager observers, the Endurance sails south only to encounter a number of problems... their Canadian dog-handler bails ship. The cook turns out to be a drunk. A Welsh stowaway turns out to be a nineteen year old kid. The waters are colder this year, making their journey difficult and dangerous. But Shackleton is determined to accomplish his goal... and to keep every man in his expedition alive.


One of the joys of A&E's epic miniseries is the fine cast they always assemble. Kenneth Branagh makes a fine Shackleton, a man driven by his own ambition and the power of his dreams. The supporting cast, made up of a league of familiar faces from Austen adaptations, other miniseries and occasionally a Hollywood production support him well. These British actors put great emphasis into their roles and have a fine script to work with. Enough humor and irony is laced through the dialogue to keep even the more dark moments upbeat. Somehow the second half of the film seems to drag much more than the first and is less satisfying, although historically correct. But then I've never been one for just "search and rescue" plot lines, and after they get stuck on the ice the pace wavers. Theoretically, most older viewers could handle this film but there are some elements I should mention. There is a lot of profanity, most mild or British slang (buggar, bloody, etc) but three abuses of Jesus' name, along with two f-words (one fully pronounced, the other half muffled) pop up in the dialogue. There's a gruesome scene in which a man's toes must be amputated to keep him alive after being frostbitten. We hear the clamp and crunch of bones and see severed toes being dropped into a tin pail. It's also intimidated Shackleton is carrying on an extra-marital affair. We only ever see him kiss his mistress once; they never engage in any activity on screen. One of the sailors develops a painful puss pocket on his backside and the camera briefly examines the boil. On Winter's Day for fun the crew come up with sketches for others' enjoyment. One of the men dresses up like a woman and dances on the stage.


What actually bothered me most were the thematic elements. One of the crew has a beloved cat who must be killed because she would starve, get in the way of the sleds or be caught by the dogs. Later, when the ice is breaking up, the dogs themselves are shot. It's implied they're consumed along with seal and albatross meat. I don't mind historical accuracy, but some things I would rather not know. The most interesting aspect of this film is how the crew struggles to survive, working together against insurmountable odds. For two years they were stranded yet managed to survive. Not a single man was lost in the expedition though several suffered miserably. It's nothing short of a miracle Ernest Shackleton made it home alive. In that sense, this film is valuable merely for its compelling story of a courageous group of men who overcame incredible odds and lived to tell the tale. What is even more incredible is the actual footage at the end, which reveals half the crew, including Shackleton, made one more trip to the arctic that nearly took their lives.  

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