Friends since childhood, Kon-Tiki directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg sail through their Norse saga of adventure, friendship and trust with a handsome parable on film-making.
South Pacific by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The 1950 documentary Kon-Tiki filmed by the Kontiki’s captain, ethnographer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl is the only Norwegian film to have ever won an Oscar, so it’s no surprise directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg are looking to repeat its success. What is surprising is that it’s taken over sixty years for a dramatic feature to hit our screens, but with Rønning and Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki, it’s been well worth the wait. The most expensive film in Norwegian cinematic history, it’s a visual delight of Polynesian rainforest, Norwegian snow fields, Brooklyn brownstones and Peruvian ports – all of which blow an energetic wind into the sails of a simple raft floating downstream across the Pacific. And while it might not be your usual tale of maritime survival – neither fantastic like Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi nor intimately dangerous like JC Chandor’s All Is Lost, it’s a thoroughly entertaining parable on the fine line between hubris and faith.
Larvik 1920, and adventuresome boy Thor Heyerdahl jumps a hole in the frozen fjord onto a floating ice floe, despite the fact he can’t swim. Falling in, he’s promptly saved by his childhood friend Erik. Jump to 1936, as Thor (Pål Sverre Hagen) lands on the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva with his newlywed wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) to study its fauna and flora. There he seizes on the hypothesis that the Pacific islands were inhabited not from Asia but from Peru, its natives floating downstream on balsa-wood rafts across the Pacific Ocean. Unable to publish his scientific work, he embarks on a mission in 1947 to prove the establishment wrong, setting sail on a raft with Norwegian engineer and fridge salesman Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), childhood friends and war veterans Erik (Odd Magnus Williamson), Knut (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein (Jakob Oftebro) as well as Swedish cameraman and anthropologist Bengt (Gustaf Skarsgård). Charmed by Thor and his vision, the motley crew build a raft and drift across the ocean’s currents – uncertain whether they’re pushing the scientific boat out or running a fool’s errand.
Their third film after Bandidas and Max Manus: Man Of War, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki has been languishing in the shadows since its Norwegian release in August 2012. And now Norway’s nomination for the 2013 Oscars is finally hitting UK screens. Featuring a great ensemble cast, including Pål Sverre Hagen – almost unrecognisable from In Order Of Disappearance, Gustaf Skarsård (son and brother to Stellan and Alexander respectively) and Jakob Oftebro from series two of The Bridge, Kon-Tiki is as much about the crew’s blind faith in their captain as one man’s unswerving belief in success. Sure, there’s an intermittent focus on the raft’s balsa wood planks taking on water or the lashings coming undone, as well as the inexperienced crew’s fears of sharks or their internecine squabbles, but its narrative drive is all about self-belief, and it’s an arc that implicates its directors too.
Despite a tendency towards overproduction – dressing all their 1920s Norwegian schoolboys in woollen scarves and cloth hats, and an awkward moment with a stowaway crab – Kon-Tiki is a modern-day parable on film-making. Heyerdahl is not only the documentary’s director – setting off in an inflatable dinghy to get footage of the raft in long-shot – he’s also a stand-in for would-be filmmakers everywhere, who -despite a lack of interest (and funding) from producers – sets off to prove them all wrong, fuelling his foolhardy mission and tiny crew with indomitable self-belief and a faith in the cinematic gods of destiny. The sea becomes a cinema screen, filled with glowing krill, phosphorescent jellyfish and luminous whales. And when Heyerdahl’s crazy-daring scheme succeeds, it’s in homage to the seize-the-day ethos of filmmaking – adventurers in their own cinematic expeditions.
Just like Thor Heyerdahl’s life of adventure, cinema is a world away from everyday life, dividing families and driving husbands apart from their wives. And while it’s a shame that the black-and-white film that plays as the credits roll doesn’t honour the original crew with footage from the 1950 documentary, Kon-Tiki still makes for an enjoyable tribute to Heyerdahl’s devil-may-care spirit of adventure, his courageous supporters and an optimistic age of discovery. It’s spellbinding, stunning and slick. And while it rather conservatively refuses to push the boat out, Kon-Tiki still makes for a buoyant adventure on the high seas.
Kon-Tiki is released on 19th December 2014 in the UK