Shackleton (2001)

Directed by Charles Sturridge

The A&E production of Shackleton is simply and purely an adventure story. This is its strength and its weakness. It makes an interesting contrast to the other DVD I watched this weekend, Bandits. The one is a simple, unswerving type of movie while the other, the latter, is about as many types of movie as you can think of, and maybe a few more as well.

Created as a television mini-series (presented in two 100 minute parts on 2 DVD disks with a 3rd disc for features), the medium is the perfect choice for this type of tale. Like a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, it is an adventure story told in the manner of, “And then …” Incident follows upon incident sequentially, each more dramatic than the one before.

Given the nature of Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica, its perfectly suited for this style. It achieves drama, excitement, veracity and is simply wonderful to watch, especially Kenneth Branagh’s performance and the awesome, wintry landscapes.

However, what this kind of story, told in this way, does not give you is the kind of real character insight less formal storytelling sometimes allows. While it shows us the man (Shackleton) and his fascinating character, it doesn’t give us any real understanding of him. We get the similitude but not really at the essence. This, I think, is because we are largely involved in the, “And then …” aspect of the story, the building of incidents whereas getting at the character requires a few stops along the way. The focus is on the story, less on the man.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The adventure holds our attention fully which is more or less what we want from a story.

I have few other petty grievances with Shackleton as well. In one scene where (if I recall correctly) they are dragging their boats across the ice, the wind is howling wildly, blowing snow everywhere. It’s a hellish scene. Yet one or two of the characters are struggling headfirst into the wind … without hats. Maybe Antarctica is different, but in Canada this would mean your ears fall off in about 15 seconds. Your entire face would be numb with cold, your nose ready to fall to the ground. How the hell does anyone walk headfirst into a wind like that, in an environment like that, with nothing on their head? Maybe this is just my mother talking …

A bigger complaint is with the second disk which, for some reason, appears to be a bit washed out in a number of scenes. The contrast isn’t as vivid and the blacks aren’t as deep as they should be. (This seems to be primarily true of certain night time ice flow scenes; interiors and sunny outdoor scenes seem fine.)

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