Christmas Wouldn't Be Christmas Without Snow
Kenneth Branagh Braved the Elements for his Latest Role, as Polar Explorer Ernest Shackleton
Radio Times, 22 December 2001 - 4 January 2002
When Charles Sturridge, director of C4's 'Longitude', invited Kenneth Branagh to a Chinese restaurant to ask him to play polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, he was amazed to get a yes even before the wonton soup had arrived.
Branagh was already familiar with the story of Shackleton - and the 1914 expedition depicted here, which features the sinking of the Endurance and the remarkable rescue of the crew - through his friend, actor and adventurer Brian Blessed. Having accepted the part, Branagh turned to Blessed for advice:
"Blessed said, 'Do you know how to pull a sledge? I'll show you.' He got me pulling an enormous tractor tyre. By the end I was pulling three tractor tyres and carrying a rucksack full of rocks."
It was still only the vaguest approximation of the hardships that faced Shackleton and his men. "I have attempted to take the path my gut tells me, although not as bravely as Shackleton," says Branagh. "There is a memorable quote: for scientific discovery, give me Scott, for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen, but when your back's against the wall and no hope is left, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."
The cast spent five weeks in Greenland, on occasion confronting genuine danger. Not to mention genuine cold. Consequently, emotions ran higher than on conventional productions, says Branagh: "There was a near-riot when someone brought a bag of Mars bars. It was like seeing a group of rats. The woman with the bag was nearly savaged."
But the treacherous conditions intensified friendships, too, as they had on the original expeditions. "Everybody was ribbed senselessly all the time, and given terrible nicknames." Disappointingly, he declines to reveal his own. "Too filthy," he says.
(Listing: 2 January 2002)
This is simply because Branagh is quite stunning as Sir Ernest Shackleton. He paints a compelling portrait of a bold, brave but flawed and complicated man, able to command other men by the sheer force of his personality.
In writer/director Charles Sturridge's sumptuously filmed story, we first see the experienced Shackleton lecturing about polar exploration. But just talking about it is not enough - he is itching to go back out there, against the wishes of his long-suffering wife. His mistress isn't too keen on the idea, either.
He needs finance for his endeavour, and uses his considerable charm to win over moneyed old ladies. Shackleton is also a master of press manipulation and does everything with an eye to newspaper coverage - essential is he is secure enough sponsorship.
After hand-picking a team of men, Shackleton buys a ship, which he names Endurance - "By endurance, we conquer" being the Shackleton family motto. And in 1914 he's ready to go, though the clouds of war are gathering. The jounrey starts well, but the Endurance becomes stuck in the ice. All could be lost...
Much of the first part of 'Shackleton' is inevitably taken up with setting the scene, so there is a lot of talking in drawing rooms and arguments over family dinners. We don't actually see any snow until quite near the end. But, thankfully, the pace doesn't drag and all this exposition is truly necessary if we are to understand just what on earth would compel anyone to undertake such a perilous journey.
(Listing: 3 January 2002)