Kenneth Branagh's Dynamic Performance Breaks the Ice in A&E'S Miniseries Shackleton
Orlando Sentinel, 7 April 2002
by Hal Boedeker
The miniseries Shackleton is ambitious, handsome and chilly - chillier than
it needs to be. The dramatization of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition to Antarctica
fits too snugly in the stuffy movie tradition of great-man biographies.
Yet the four-hour production boasts two awesome assets.
As the stubborn, heroic Shackleton, Kenneth Branagh gives a blazing
performance that often cuts through the cold.
And in a feat of moviemaking magic, the Antarctica scenes look credible and
harrowing: The lavish production filmed in Greenland, Iceland and London
studios, Shackleton is almost always fascinating to watch even when it
falls short dramatically.
Writer-director Charles Sturridge, who oversaw 'Gulliver's Travels' and
'Brideshead Revisited', tells the story with respect and style but not enough
context. No one should wander into this miniseries without knowing Shackleton's
life, the history of Antarctic exploration or that the Irish adventurer
failed to reach the South Pole twice before. After others beat him to the
South Pole, Shackleton wanted to cross Antarctica on the ill-fated 1914 trip.
An A&E Biography, 'Ernest Shackleton: Looking South', is indispensable.
Unfortunately, it debuts at 8pm Monday, right before part two.
The Shackleton adventure works better as a documentary, as PBS' Nova proved
March 26 with a film that drew on footage and photographs of the real
adventure, the men's words, their descendants' observations and experts'
The chief problem with A&E's miniseries is that most crew members fail to
emerge as compelling individuals, and that thwarts the story's emotional
pull. One exception is Frank Hurley (Matt Day), the photographer who
preserved the saga for posterity.
The slow-moving first half details Shackleton's efforts in drumming up
financial support, assembling his crew and setting off on his ship, the
Endurance. Part one concludes with the ship becoming stuck in the ice in
the Weddell Sea. The rushed second half explains how Shackleton and his 27-man crew carried
on after the ship broke apart and sank 10 months later. (The ship's
destruction is a technical marvel.)
The crew's survival represents one of the most astonishing adventures in
history. The men spent nearly six months on an ice floe. They traveled for
six days in three lifeboats to Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others traveled 870 miles, over 17 days and rough
waters, in one boat to South Georgia Island. It "would be ranked as one of
the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished," Caroline Alexander writes in
"Endurance". After that, Shackleton and two men walked for 36 hours across the
mountainous island to reach a whaling station. Next, Shackleton spent three
months trying to return to Elephant Island to rescue the men. The saga, long overshadowed by World War I, has emerged recently as a story
of deft management under dire circumstances.
Mr. Branagh's dynamic performance will add to the legend, and it justifies
all the soaring music. He excels in playing the leader's drive and
resourcefulness in keeping the men alive. The actor also establishes Shackleton's selfishness, his public relations savvy and his regret at hurting a loyal wife by keeping a mistress. Mr.
Branagh won an Emmy last year for HBO's Conspiracy, a World War II drama,
but he's more impressive here.
Shackleton deserved to be longer. It needed more feeling to match its
technical wizardry and more carefully drawn foils for its shrewd hero. All
in all, however, the miniseries is too harshly beautiful to ignore.