I’ve been overloading on polar dramas lately by watching both The Last Place on Earth (1985), about Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole, and this more recent Channel 4 mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role, which was repeated recently on a UK satellite TV station. In the wake of Amundsen and Scott’s triumphant and tragic journeys to the Pole, Shackleton came up with a different but equally daring type of challenge – a trans-Antarctic expedition. His group ran into deadly danger when their ship became trapped in the ice and was crushed, but the mini-series traces how they overcame all the odds to make their way back to civilisation, without losing a single member of the expedition team.
From the opening scenes onwards, I realised that Shackleton was a top-quality production – I hadn’t spotted the name of the director and writer, but it was no surprise to discover that it was Charles Sturridge, director of the classic ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. The first episode of Shackleton, set in the period just before the First World War, has the same atmosphere of aching nostalgia as Brideshead, similarly showing the last vestiges of a privileged world about to be torn apart. The blend of landscapes, costumes and music here also has the same kind of seductive power as the country house scenes in the earlier series. For Shackleton, the music is by Adrian Johnston, composer of many of my favourite TV and movie soundtracks, and the cinematographer is Henry Braham, who also filmed yet another period drama I’ve watched recently, The Land Girls (1998), also full of beautiful landscapes.
There is a lot of drama in Britain and on dry land before Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton sets off for the Pole, as he struggles to get enough funding together. The Royal Geographical Society wants its name attached to the project, or semi-attached, but doesn’t want to come up with any substantial funding. So the explorer is forced to visit a succession of rich elderly people to charm them into stumping up cash. Robert Hardy has a great scene as one of those bankrolling the party. Several reviews I’ve seen of this series complain about the amount of build-up and the slow pace, but I can’t agree – I thought all the opening part was extremely well done, and it really sets the expedition in context, showing how tight the finances were, and how war was declared just as the group set off.
Branagh is excellent as Shackleton, making it clear just what a complicated man this is, and how many contrasts there are between his nervousness at times on dry land and his assurance on the ice – though there are nerves at times during the mission too, especially when one or two of his team turn on him and question his decisions, very understandably since their lives depend on them.
The first two episodes also show chaotic Shackleton’s home life is, as he has bailiffs coming round to the house because of unpaid bills, while his brother, Frank (Mark Tandy), is actually jailed for an unconnected fraud – not making it any easier for Shackleton to persuade people to invest in his project. There’s also the turbulent matter of his love life, as he somehow has to pacify and provide for both his wife, Emily (Brideshead Revisited actress Phoebe Nicholls) and his mistress Rosalind (Embeth Davidtz) before setting off on his journey.
In this long opening section, Shackleton comes across as someone charming and charismatic but rather disorganised. The methods he uses to select explorers for his party are also haphazard. However, in the later episodes of the drama, his powers of organisation are seen when he copes with all that goes wrong on the journey across the Antarctic, and refuses to be defeated.
The film shows how, after the ship, so appropriately named the Endurance, becomes trapped in the ice, the group are forced to camp on the ice for months. Then they have to row hundreds of miles in small boats when their ship is finally crushed, and a succession of other trials unfold, almost as terrible as those faced by Scott and his party. Crucial differences are that Shackleton and his group have a large team of dogs for much of the time, and also manage to keep their health better, though they do face great hardships and there are tensions among the group. Matt Day is very good as the group photographer Frank Hurley, prepared to risk his life to bring home precious film of their journey, while others who stand out in the group include actors Mark McGann, as Tom Crean, and Kevin McNally, as Frank Worsley.
When he has to leave some of the group on Elephant Island as the fittest members struggle on to South Georgia to get help, it is almost impossible to believe that they will ever make it there, still less succeed in rescuing those left behind. It’s an astonishing moment when Shackleton and his companions finally arrive in South Georgia and stumble into the village there, going into the house of the warden – who can hardly believe it when they tell him who they are and what they have been through.
Much of the film was made on location in Greenland and Iceland – I saw it on TV, but I gather there is a 50-minute “making of” featurette in the DVD box set, which I would love to see some time in the future. The Polar scenes are possibly slightly rushed compared with all the build-up at the beginning, meaning the series doesn’t quite have the epic quality of The Last Place on Earth – but, at around four hours, it still provides plenty of gripping viewing.