Beyond The Pole
Directed by David L Williams
“Don’t be impotent. Be important!” Tackling climate change might not seem like an obvious subject for a comedy – especially in the wake of Copenhagen – but the heroes of this new British mockumentary are more than just the sum just of their catchy t-shirt slogans.
There’s no Al Gore-style proselytizing here, just two 30-something Brits who are determined to become the first carbon neutral, vegetarian, organic team to reach the North Pole “unsupported”. Unemployed Mark (Stephen Mangan) is so committed to the cause that he’s sold his home and wrecked his marriage to fund the expedition. His friend Brian (Rhys Thomas) has more to lose but, unaware that his wife Sandra is pregnant, he agrees to run the gamut of sub-zero temperatures, polar bears and crotch rot.
Mangan, who specializes in playing arrogant bastards like Dr Guy Secretan in TV’s Green Wing, is hilariously intense, yet oddly sympathetic as the overly sensitive veggie who has a meltdown when their cameraman shoots a polar bear. The script, by Neil Warhurst and Williams, is based on Warhurst’s BBC radio series of the same name. It pokes fun at the pair’s naivety while achieving a depth of characterization that’s increasingly rare in comedy. So we laugh at Brian’s lame attempt to have phone sex during a radio link-up with wife Sandra (Rosie Cavaliero), but feel a twinge of pity for Mark, whose spouse has now decamped to the South of France with his sneering brother.
But the real highlight – not least for fans of True Blood – is the arrival of Swedish sex god Alexander Skarsgård as one half of a couple of gay Norwegian explorers. Better equipped than the Brits, they threaten Mark’s dream of a world record and provide the film with some of its funniest moments – a row over some biscuits and a conversation about foreskins – before sending the story into darker territory. As Brian sacrifices a couple of digits to frostbite and Mark starts to unravel, you wonder whether the planet might have been better off if they’d stayed at home and turned down the thermostat .
Williams, who also directed 2002’s Fly-fishing, shot on location in Greenland’s Kap Tobin, achieving an authentically arctic look for his protagonists’ grueling journey on a budget of “considerably less than £1 million”. Both he and executive producer Helen Baxendale, who also stars here as a documentary maker, are passionate about making climate, change a people issue and not just a political football. I don’t know whether a low-budget comedy can be a catalyst for change, but with a script and a cast this good, their film certainly deserves to reach a wider audience.
(Beyond the Pole is showing next month at London’s ICA cinema http://bit.ly/5Ao1RQ and on 21 February at the Glasgow Film Festival http://www.glasgowfilmfestival.org.uk/)
– Susannah Straughan