Glacially paced and structurally lumpy, "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" reps co-helmers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn's disappointing follow-up to their kudos-reaping debut "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner."
Glacially paced and structurally lumpy, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” reps co-helmers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn’s disappointing follow-up to their kudos-reaping debut “Atanarjuat the Fast Runner.” Although this Arctic-set Canuck-Danish co-production offers some compelling scenes, spectacular scenery and picks up toward the end, the tale of a 1922 encounter between Inuit people and European explorers lacks the verve and universal accessibility that made “Atanarjuat” such an arthouse pleaser. Beyond Canada and the fest circuit, where the pic is likely to be more admired than enjoyed, “Rasmussen” looks likely to generate about as much commercial interest as walrus meat.
The real Knud Rasmussen (played here by Jens Jorn Spottag) was a Greenland-born anthropologist of mixed Danish and Inuit descent, and therefore fluent in the Inuit tongue. Historically, he remains best known for being the first man to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific by sled, collecting artifacts and stories from the native peoples of the Arctic along the way.
However, despite its title, the pic’s story is told much more from the Inuit characters’ perspective, particularly that of the fetching Apak (Leah Angutimarik). After a striking, stylized sequence showing her (mostly in chaste close-up) having sex in the spirit world with her dead husband, her voiceover explains that the following events rep what happened when she was young.
Apak’s father Avva (Pakak Innukshuk), the tribe’s shaman, doesn’t approve of her ghostly couplings, and wants her to be nicer to her current husband, Taparte. Later, she runs into her first sweetheart, Nuqallaq (strappingly handsome Natar Ungalaaq, who played the title character in “Atanarjuat”), and their amusing, sharp-tongued banter suggests there may be a spark of attraction still between them.
This romantic subplot and familial tensions are barely developed as the plot shifts to the arduous journey Avva, Apak and several other members of their group make toward the island of Iglulik with two of Rasmussen’s crew, Peter Freuchen (Kim Bodnia, from Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher”) and Therkel Mathiassen (Jakob Cedergren). En route, the travelers meet another Inuit community which has embraced Christianity.
On paper, the plot might sound like it offers a rich mix of ideas, encompassing the collision of cultures, religions, genders and the material and spiritual worlds. What a shame then that the telling is often so flat, especially in the early reels when too much time is devoted to long takes of Avva and his brood singing and dancing in their igloos, amid chunks of oral history from subsidiary characters that slow the narrative.
Auds who aren’t paying close attention may feel confused by why title character Rasmussen suddenly disappears from the story, or who the three eccentrically garbed people are to whom Avva bids such a tearful farewell. Sounds of stifled sniffling were heard at projection caught during this sequence, but many others found the onscreen wails of despair unconvincing.
Thesping is pretty good all around from a mostly non- or semi-pro cast.
Altogether, pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished “Atanarjuat,” prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore. By contrast, “Rasmussen” feels more like a conventional anthropological pic with a docudrama veneer.
Lensing on high-def by co-director/co-editor Cohn looks much better in the exterior shots than in the interiors, where low lighting occasionally makes the action indecipherable. Sound is imaginatively deployed, and the rest of tech package is fluidly assembled.