'Beyond the Pole'

Pic brings a breath of satirical fresh air to a topic that's rapidly approaching media suffocation.

Calling itself “the world’s first global-warming comedy,” cheeky low-budgeter “Beyond the Pole” brings a breath of satirical fresh air to a topic that’s rapidly approaching media suffocation. Mockumentary about two fumbling Brit amateurs who want to save the planet by walking to the North Pole plays like a cross between “The Office” and a “Touching the Void” parody set in the Arctic. Sending up earnest documentary cliches as well as eco-warriors, this modest but good-looking item goes out digitally in Blighty in February (following offshore fest screenings last year) and will play equally well on the smallscreen.

Style is rooted in alternative Brit TV comedy, where leads Stephen Mangan (“Green Wing”) and Rhys Thomas (“The Fast Show”) both made their names. The two team well here: Mangan (channeling Jeremy Clarkson crossed with a young Elliott Gould) takes the lead as the barking Mark Bark-Jones, and the more diminutive Thomas plays his bewildered, more working-class sidekick, Brian Tongue.

Chucklesome intro, with a deadly serious v.o. by docu director Becky (Helen Baxendale, who also exec produced), has the duo sporting “Don’t Be Impotent. Be Important” green T-shirts as they tell how they want to be the first carbon-neutral, organic, vegetarian team to make it to the North Pole unsupported (i.e. on foot). They’re also unsupported by any sponsorship, apart from packets of vegetarian suet, though they are accompanied by a Scottish cameraman, Steve (Clive Russell), who’s an experienced hand. Their “polar HQ” is a tatty caravan in an English field manned by overweight radio ham Graham (Mark Benton).

It’s unclear how walking to the pole will save the planet, but it soon becomes clear that Mark is more interested in getting into the Guinness Book of Records. His absent wife (Zoe Telford) and brother (Patrick Baladi) both think he’s nuts, while Brian’s secretly pregnant partner (Rosie Cavaliero) reckons the whole idea is suicidal.

Pic quickly gets to the main course as the team hits the Arctic, where they only manage to walk a mile and a half on the first day. Three weeks later they bump into two gay Norwegians (Alexander Skarsgaard, Lars Arentz-Hansen) with the same idea and much better equipment, which triggers growing madness in Mark as the expedition spirals into deadly chaos.

With considerable experience in both comedy and genuine docus, helmer David L. Williams (“Flyfishing”), who co-adapted the script from a radio series by Paul Barnhill and Neil Warhurst, knows exactly the filmmaking cliches he’s spoofing, as well as the deadpan comic timing needed to stretch this over feature length. Aside from a midway dip and some overextended drama near the climax, the pacing stays alert, with a comically cherishable twist at the end when all seems hopeless.

Mangan and Thomas have to carry the movie on their shoulders, and Williams and editor Rob Miller give them just enough space to convey a sense of comic improv without letting the momentum sag. Further marginal trimming of some of Mangan’s rants would further improve the picture.

Supporting roles, notably by Benton and Cavaliero, are spot-on in their reality-program sendups. HD lensing by Stuart Biddlecombe of Greenland and Iceland snowscapes is both photogenic and highly convincing.

Beyond the Pole

U.K.

Production

A Shooting Pictures production, in association with Polite Storm. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by David L. Williams, Andrew J. Curtis. Executive producer, Helen Baxendale. Co-producer, Dean O'Toole. Directed by David L. Williams. Screenplay, Neil Warhurst, Williams, based on a radio series by Paul Barnhill, Warhurst.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Stuart Biddlecombe; editor, Rob Miller; music, Guy Michelmore; production designer, Lisa Marie Hall; art director, Amy Simons; costume designer, Nikkie Alsford; sound, Peter Gaudino; arctic expert, Kristjan Fridriksson; assistant directors, Richard Bird (Greenland), Ken Thompson Marchesi (U.K.); casting, Jenny Duffy. Reviewed on DVD, London, Jan. 8, 2010. Running time: 87 MIN. (English, Norwegian dialogue)
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