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Some men dont have traditional, clichéd ambitions. They dont yearn for fortune, fame, sex and power. Okay, yes they do, but they also have other, far less traditional goals. Chief among them, apparently, is to be really, really cold. These men are the Polar Explorers. To be fair, their primary ambition is probably to explore, to go places no one has ever been, to achieve things before anyone else. But they want to do it where its very, very cold. There are probably not as many of these explorers as there once were, as there are fewer and fewer goals to achieve, but the spirit remains alive and well just look at the numbers of people who endeavor to climb Mount Everest every year. There is something about overcoming not only the height and the climb, but the cold as well. Perhaps the most famous of these chilled explorers is the late Ernest Shackleton. He may well be able to claim the title of Leader of the Greatest Adventure in History. What makes this even more impressive is that the voyage itself was a massive, spectacular failure.
In a two disc docudrama starring Kenneth Branagh as Shackleton, the Arts and Entertainment Network set out to document this infamous journey to nowhere, and shed some light on the man who was Ernest Shackleton. The film opens as Shackleton lectures about one of his first journeys to the Antarctic continent, during which he made it closer to the South Pole than any man before him. After the lecture, he receives word that Amundson has reached the Pole rendering him obsolete as the premier Antarctic explorer. He knows what he needs to do. He needs to go back, try again, this time not only to reach the Pole, but to traverse the continent as well. He wants to do this, its never been done before, and his chances of going down in history as a great explorer are looking mighty dim. He also simply has a need to do this he must push harder, go further, do better. Too bad he has no money and a brother about to go to prison. Never one to let the small things get him down, Shackleton sets about securing funding for his mission, not an easy task in 1914 England. When finally his trip has a crew and financing, Shackleton sets off on his journey to the South, with a small, two-year detour through hell, frozen over.
A&E does a fine job letting the story play out, finding a way to make it intriguing even for those who know the outcome of the expedition. Shackleton is portrayed as a driven, somewhat vain man, particularly at the beginning. As things begin to go wrong, he proves to be a great leader, never expecting his crew to do a task that he himself is unwilling to do as well. His unflinching dedication to achieving his goal turns to an equally unflinching goal of protecting his crew as the expedition becomes doomed to failure. His crew is filled with a variety of odd ducks, each reacting to adversity in different ways. His skipper, Frank Worsley (Kevin McNally) turns from an easy-going slacker of a ship captain into an invaluable resource when things go sour. Frank Hursley (Matt Day), along to photograph the expedition, turns from along-for-the-ride opportunist into documentarian of an epic struggle. Despite the extraordinarily grim conditions, there is very little dissension in the ranks, primarily because Shackleton knows how to lead firmly and compassionately. There is little doubt that things would have turned out far worse had it not been for his skill at handling a crew.
Written and directed by Charles Sturridge, Shackleton does presuppose a bit of foreknowledge on the part of its audience. The film does not spell out that the explorer had made two trips previous to this expedition, each ending in failure, nor does it go into great detail as to the state of Antarctic exploration at the time. These details are a bit glossed over, but the viewer gets enough information to understand the story being told, if not quite enough to put it into greater perspective. The photography by Henry Braham is generally excellent. There are some sequences of the listing ship, trapped in the ice and surrounded by white, that are magnificent. In other places, the lighting is inconsistent, going a bit yellow, particularly in the blinding white of the ice floes. The film does an excellent job of conveying the length of the expedition, the harshness of the environment and the deteriorating condition of the men.
There are many fine performances in Shackleton, but the movie belongs to Kenneth Branagh. He portrays the man with an edge of vanity necessary, really, for anyone who thinks they can pull off such a monumental feat. He is far from a perfect man, and his human foibles are not ignored. They are also not dwelt upon excessively, for this is the story not only of the man, but of this expedition in particular. Branagh manages to give Shackleton an acute awareness of his failings while at the same time allowing him to be single-mindedly focused when he needs to be. Shackleton comes out as an unbelievably determined man, maybe even a great one, but not a perfect one. This goes a long way toward giving the film credibility as a study of the man who was, rather than a larger than life legend.
Overall, Shackleton is quite an achievement for a made for TV movie. Despite its length (two 100 minute discs) we were able to watch the entire saga in a single sitting without getting bored. The performances are solid, the setting spectacular, and the story itself nearly unbelievable. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in Polar exploration, or just an incredible tale of exploration at a time when there were still many frontiers left to conquer, and many men willing to risk life and limb to be the first to conquer them. A fascinating story, and a well made presentation.
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