Christmas at the movies has traditionally been a time for adventure and escape. The Norwegian seafarer Kon-Tiki has taken its sweet while to arrive in the UK – it was an Oscar nominee back in early 2013, when it lost out to Michael Haneke’s Amour – but this ship finally comes in at a welcome moment indeed: the very sight of it proves more stirring than all the hours of pixelated hobbitry and museum-going on offer at your nearest megaplex.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg here plot a course for latter-day Nordic myth, as any film that opens with a young boy named Thor tentatively stepping out onto the ice perhaps must. This Thor is Thor Heyerdahl, the real-life explorer who in 1947 resolved to sail from Peru to Polynesia on a raft made of balsa wood in a bid to prove a theory he’d long been floating figuratively – that, for early civilisations, the oceans were considered pathways, not obstacles.
Part of what follows is a straightforward account of how Heyerdahl did it: assembling the crew, designing the raft, taking meetings with those dignitaries who might fund such an expedition. (Naturally, the one who gives the greenlight is the one he mistakes for a waiter.) There’s a parrot, a conspicuous peg leg and, once afloat, a chronicle of mounting maritime danger. The men get browner, beardier, skinnier; as the raft drifts off-course towards the Galapagos isles – which is to say, too close to Darwin’s field study to make much difference – their reserves, of food and courage, will be sorely tested.
What makes the film more than just a nuts-and-bolts account is the lush, handsome sincerity it exudes in examining what making this particular connection meant to Heyerdahl. Pål Sverre Hagen is a tremendously upright and watchful presence in the role; he’s like a sunflower forever seeking out the light, just as his ancestors once did the sun-god Tiki.
The script gives Heyerdahl a lovely moment of uxoriousness on the night before setting sail: after he catches the eye of a local spitfire in a bar, an instant flashback shows the explorer on an earlier Polynesian venture, carrying his injured wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) through the jungle in order that the couple might make their ship home. When we emerge in the present, Heyerdahl’s in the bar’s telephone booth, reassuring Liv that he still loves her, and an almost inexplicably affecting cut shows her back in Norway, looking out through a window at their young children playing.
Clearly, some distances are greater than others, and far harder to bridge. The ocean – alluring yet unpredictable – is the real third party here, and the one that will exert the greatest influence on these men’s relationship with dry land. (Freudians, take note: whenever one of these sailors is pulled from the brine, they invariably wind up clinging to the mast.)
It’s not always plain sailing: there are choppier stretches out on the waters, when you become aware this Harvey Weinstein-approved cut is one of several crossings this vessel has made. (The film is being released in English-language and subtitled versions, shot simultaneously.) Yet the set-pieces that have survived really do grab you: a bloody rescue from sharks that attracts only more attention, a convoluted attempt to surf an especially treacherous set of waves.
At one point, the directors somehow tear themselves away from cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s sweeping seascapes, and pull up and up until we’re left contemplating this tiny raft’s relation to first the planet, then the galaxy entire. Kon-Tiki never loses sight of how, in the cosmic scale of things, Heyerdahl’s jaunt from A to B was only just more of a diversion than your heading to your in-laws’ for Christmas lunch; yet it also registers exactly how much getting there, and getting back, meant to those on board. The result is adventurous and romantic in a way very few modern films are.
(MovieMail, December 2014)
Kon-Tiki screens on BBC2 at 2.30pm tomorrow.