Monday, February 08, 2010

Film review: Beyond The Pole

written for the British Comedy Guide

Climate change isn't just all over the news, it's also all over the cinema. There are the worthy documentaries and docu-dramas of course, such as The Age of Stupid and An Inconvenient Truth but Hollywood has certainly got in on the act too, giving its big-budget disaster movies the moral warning edge that WE WILL BRING THIS ON OURSELVES. I think it is fair to say, however, that Beyond The Pole is the first British, climate change, buddy comedy movie.

This new indie from Shooting Pictures sees Stephen Mangan and Rhys Thomas play a couple of rather endearing idiots, Mark and Brian, who have seen The Day After Tomorrow and a few terrifying stats on the news and decided that something simply must be done to save the planet. They could settle for refusing the offer of a plastic bag or leaving the car at home, but thanks to a rather incendiary mix of frustrated home lives, a thrill-seeking streak and a complete lack of understanding of the dangers involved, they instead decide to walk to the North Pole completely unaided. Oh, and the trip will be carbon neutral, organic and vegetarian too. Naturally.

They've never done anything like this before - although Mark feels qualified thanks to his adventurer great-grandfather, and Brian does love a bit of extreme sports on the X-Box and that's kinda similar, right? Plus, they have arctic cameraman Steve at their side, but when he's attacked by a polar bear (earlier described by Brian as 'cuddly-looking') they put him out of action somewhat by firing a warning shot straight into his leg. Unbowed, the boys continue, but news from home for both of them takes their eyes off the prize, and with a couple of rather more professional Norwegians on their tail, it looks like they won't even make the Guinness Book of Records, let alone save the world.

Beyond The Pole may not have the backing of a big studio - it was built on private funding and a hell of a lot of persistence - but it does have three important assets on its side: Stephen Mangan, Rhys Thomas and one stunning landscape. Working backwards then: for this film to work you genuinely have to believe that the guys are living and struggling in this harsh environment, and what better way to achieve that than to actually shoot it there?

The apparently never-ending Greenlandic ice floes that provide the back-drop for Beyond The Pole give this film an impressive scale and provide a real sense of threat that you simply can't recreate in the studio.

And then there's the film's leads, Mangan and Thomas. Stephen Mangan has made this particular brand of well-intentioned fool his stock in trade (never better than in, well Never Better, the sadly un-recommissioned BBC Two sitcom from a couple of years back) but here there is the great addition of a slightly dangerous side fostered by disappointment with how his life has worked out so far, and the frustration that no-one seems to see the urgency of the world's dire situation. Thomas - currently excelling in Bellamy's People which gets better and better every week - shows Brian to be the rather more stable of the pair, but still utterly deluded as to the enormity of the task in front of him, which he greets with a cheeky smile for the camera.

There are some great lines along the way - I particularly enjoyed the exchange "When Bono and Geldof saw those starving kids, they couldn't just keep making hit records, could they?" "Geldof certainly couldn't...", although it has to be said that the belly-laugh count could be higher. Another quibble - certainly not one that modern films often fall foul of - is that the film could simply be longer; Mark's decent into insanity happens a bit too quickly and, quite frankly, I could watch Brian flailing about in knee-deep snow for hours (Thomas shows a real capacity for physical comedy).

With Mangan and Thomas at the helm, though, a trip to the North Pole is one you're more than happy to take - their rapport is great, especially when bickering like an old, admittedly potty-mouthed married couple, and for all their characters' idiocy you're always behind them because their dedication to the cause is genuine and therefore infectious. And in the end, I know that a nicely-made Britcom with great lead performances and its heart firmly in the right place is going to do a better job than an Al Gore doc at getting me to turn the thermostat down...

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