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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Shackelton
A&E Video // Unrated // April 9, 2002
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by D.K. Holm | posted April 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

What is the allure of the Arctic regions? Is it the purity of the land, free of germs thanks to the sub-freezing temperatures? Or is it another manifestation of the "man against nature" mania that has dominated the media in the past few years, as seen in the form of TV shows such as Survivor and movies like The Perfect Storm and Cast Away? Or do we in the west have such comfortable lives that we like to scare ourselves with alternative possibilities, such as starvation, isolation, and freezing to death?

Well, let's leave speculation to the sociologists and the existential wits at Film Comment. For the purposes of this review it is enough to say that the exploits of Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer who made several valiant runs at the South Pole, has captured the imagination of readers, first with the publication in the late '90s of Caroline Alexander's book (and various complementary exhibits) about Shackleton's ill-fated tour of duty in the ice flows, and then with a confusing cluster of documentaries by George Butler and others (In 1999, at least, director Wolfgang Petersen was attached to a feature film version of the story). Shackleton mania has now reached its apotheosis with Shackleton, the four hour British television mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh as the explorer, broadcast on the A&E channel in the United States and now available on a three disc set.

Like Apollo 13, Shackleton, the mini series, is a chronicle of triumph yanked from the jaws of defeat. In this case, Shackleton failed to traverse the South Pole, but did manage to bring back his crew of 27 men without a loss of human life (69 sled dogs and one cat, however, perished). Part One begins with Shackleton in the aftermath of his previous failed journey to the Pole, and follows him as he attempts to raise money for another expedition, even in the face of a looming European war, which everyone thought would be brief. His family life is touched upon; this being a modern mini-series, Shackleton is shown to have both a wife (Phoebe Nichols) and a mistress (Embeth Davidtz). The ship Endurance left England on August 8th, 1914, and Shackleton met up with it in Buenos Aires. By November they had reached South Georgia, a whaling station. Now 28 men strong (a stowaway joined the party) the ship reached the Antarctic Circle on New Year's Eve. Two weeks later, the Endurance was trapped in the Weddell Sea, a misnomer for a bay of ice flows that locked the ship into stasis. At this point of historical cliffhanging, Part One ends.

Ten months later, the ship was still trapped and the men were living on the surrounding ice. As Part Two begins, Shackleton must make some difficult decisions, among them abandoning ship. The rest of the story is well known by now; the crushing of the Endurance by the ice flows, captured on film by the ship's photographer, the Australian Frank Hurley; the trek across the ice to reach actual land, settling upon Elephant Island, which itself took seven restless days to reach by sea. Leaving his men there, Shackleton and a crew of five take one of their three boats, the James Caird, and attempt to reach South Georgia again, 800 miles away through hazardous seas. This they did—only to find themselves on the wrong side of the island. To reach the whaling station, they had to cross uncharted land, the sea route being out of the question for various reasons. This they accomplished in three days; modern trekkers have not been able to recreate their journey in less than seven. From South Georgia, after several failed attempts, Shackleton finally made it back to Elephant Island. Not one man was lost. World War I, still raging in Europe, would take up part of the task the ice itself could not finish, as once back, most the crew, including Shackleton, went to war.

This is a gripping story, eminently worth of filmic recreation. And it requires the time that a mini-series provides. The project also seems to be in good hands with writer and director Charles Sturridge. Though he has worked in movies (A Handful of Dust), Sturridge is most notable for having directed the influential series Brideshead Revisited. In that regard, you could say that Sturridge is the most important British director in the '80s. That series created the careers of numerous actors, including Jeremy Irons, and inaugurated the next phase of "British heritage" cinema, carried on with immodest alacrity by the Merchant-Ivory team and others. With only four hours at his disposal, Sturridge still needed to embrace economy, but in fact the first part of the mini-series tends to drag, especially in the pre-embarkation planning. I suppose it is important to show how vanity drove Shackleton, and that he was cheating on his wife (a not uncommon Victorian and Edwardian situation), and to show in meticulous detail how he financed the trip in the rather modern manner of selling off publication and film rights to the story. But in the end it feels like too much backstory. Still, the length of this set-up does allow the viewer to get to know the individual members of the crew and their personalities, from the rebellious Irishman Harry McNish (Ken Drury) to the prissy Captain Thomas Hans Orde-Lees (Nicholas Rowe, who was once Young Sherlock Holmes), whom nobody liked.

But of course the star of the show is Kenneth Branagh. It's easy to think of other actors who could play Shackleton based solely on resemblance (the late Van Hefflin comes to mind), but difficult to imagine anyone else who could play the part with all the array of emotions that it requires, and who also has the virtue of also being Irish, like the real Shackleton, a school dropout. Branagh was once the new hope of British theater, and also considered the new Olivier, filming one Shakespeare adaptation after another. Today, he is a good journeyman actor who still gives among the best line readings in the business (it was that skill that distinguished his Shakespeare movies from all others). Branagh captures all the facets of Shackleton, and is not afraid to show the parts that were not particularly likable, such as his (necessary) hardness.

Like most TV shows, there is a lot of filler here. The worst kind of filler in historical dramas such as this is unsubstantiated chat among underlings designed to provide comic relief. But for the most part, Sturridge is loyal to the historical record, and incidents that you think might be made up to add drama, such as Hurley (Matt Day) diving into freezing water to retrieve his precious negatives, actually happened.


VIDEO: Unlike the broadcast version, Shackleton is presented on disc by A&E in a widescreen, 1.85:1 format, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is sharp and clean, as you might expect from a recent production newly transferred to disc. There is also a lot of white in the movie. Cinematographer Henry Braham does a fantastic job with difficult location shooting, and finds hues of blue and other colors to offset the relentless whiteness all around the men. Braham's cinematography, which sometimes is desaturated in order to cool down interiors for scenes back in England, is not the richest palate you might find on television, but it suits the material and looks good on this set.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack is adequate to a mostly chatty film that only occasionally uses the sound of cracking ice or braking wood for punctuation. Adrian Johnston's lush, noble score, very A&E, is good but mostly unobtrusive.

MENUS: A modestly animated, musical menu offers 12 chapter scene selection for each of the two parts of the film.

PACKAGING: The three discs come in a thin paperboard box, each disc in a thin clear plastic shell case. Each case is papered with Branagh's face, as is the box, which, offering no less than four views of Branagh, some might see as overkill, or just laziness,. The discs are labeled with blue and white maps of Antartica.

EXTRAS: As befits a three disc set, Shackleton is packed with an additional disc of supplements. What's disappointing are some of the things that aren't included.

Being an A&E set, the extras are A&E and History Channel material (the film is a co-production of Britain's Channel 4 and the A&E Channel). First is "Shackleton, Breaking the Ice: A Film-making Expedition", a 50 minute "making of" documentary that is one of the better versions of this rogue art form, as it tells the story of the film's creation, mostly in diary form, with amusing moments of unhappy actors riled from bed after nights of boredom-born carousing (most of the exteriors were shot in Greenland and Iceland). That is followed by the A&E Channel's Biography episode, "Ernest Shackleton: Looking South," about the life of the explorer (43 minutes), which includes a lot of Hurley's still and motion picture footage of the events, showing how accurately Sturridge recreated them. Following that is the History Channel's "Antarctica: A Frozen History", a 92 minute history of South Polar exploration that puts Shackleton's forays into a historical context and brings the viewer up to date on what has happened there since. Unfortunately, these three documentaries should have been offered in the opposite order: broad background, then Shackleton, then the making of the movie, which the viewer can easily rectify by watching them in that order. Also on hand is a three screen bio of Branagh that weirdly seems to emphasize the details of his private life rather then his groundbreaking popularization of Shakespeare and other achievements. A seven-screen filmography lists most of his movies and plays as actor and director. Finally there is one screen of DVD credits for the set. What's missing from the disc is filmographies for Sturridge the writer and director (in fact, Branagh's name appears on the spines of the shell cases as if he were the author), or filmographies for the numerous members of the cast whose faces might look familiar but not quite place-able to the viewer. Also, there are no subtitle options, either in English or in other languages (the discs are close captioned in English, however).

Final Thoughts: Shackleton's story is an enduring masterpiece of courage and tenacity that receives stirring recreation in Charles Sturridge's mini-series. Carefully selected extras enhance the viewer's knowledge of the events surround Shackleton's journey.

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