A&E’s “Shackleton” benefits from a bravura performance by Kenneth Branagh in an astounding story of adventure and courage given a stately retelling by the man behind the PBS hit “Longitude.” Sir Ernest Shackleton led three expeditions to the South Pole before and during World War I, and Branagh plays the explorer with a calm tenacity and an unmistakable thirst for challenge. Shackleton’s life and missions have been well detailed in recent documentary “The Endurance” and book “Shackleton’s Way,” and director-writer Charles Sturridge sticks with the facts and allows the Shackleton story to unfold carefully without embellishment.
“We failed,” Shackleton is saying at a lecture in London on his first attempt to reach the South Pole as the miniseries opens. “I chose life over death.” Though the telepic will pass a good three hours before an exhausted and exasperated Shackleton will make a similar exhortation, that line motivates Branagh’s portrayal. The Shackleton we see — and history appears to back up this depiction — is a man of foresight who finances his mission as if it were a Broadway play and then shows a capacity to assemble and command troops whose common bond is more the love of wine and song than ship maintenance.
The second night is the real drama of this story. It chronicles Shackleton’s maneuvers in the ice-filled waters circling Antarctica; the sailing and eventual abandoning of his ship the Endurance; and the trek his 56-member crew takes with a pack of dogs, three large rowboats and a few sleds. The cinematic ambition hinted at in the first part becomes a full-blown reality in night two as director of photography Henry Braham keeps the hues shifting in the ice and water — as the men’s plight becomes increasingly grim, colors fade from the screen, leaving them in a bland wash of faded greens, grays and blues. It works in a manner similar to “Saving Private Ryan,” adding a visceral severity to the harshness of the climate and terrain.
First night of the two-parter sets up Shackleton, his home life and the beginnings of his mission, which is being staged solely because another explorer got closer to the South Pole than he did. Shackleton’s seen as a family man committed to his two children, though the existence of his mistress, Rosalind (Embeth Davidtz), is a suspicion confirmed by his wife, Emily (Phoebe Nichols), at a train station where both women appear unannounced.
Before his departure, Shackleton makes the rounds trying to find sponsors for his Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition. He does so with a modernist zeal, selling off the film rights and then the story rights to a newspaper; the appeal of Shackleton’s persona is most vibrantly visible in a pitch he gives to scientists about how his mission’s importance is far more than just research. Eventually, when he strikes a deal with photographer Frank Hurley (Matt Day), one wonders whether he has offered more than 100% of what he has available.
Boat sets sail from Buenos Aires in August, and initially it appears the Endurance will get by on the upstairs/downstairs conventions of British life. By the time Christmas arrives, and they’re 500 miles from their target with an ice field separating them from land, the unit has become one. Part one ends with the boat stuck in ice and the men using the extra time to train the sled dogs.
In part two, the men encounter the worst — they are forced to set up a base camp in an ice field only to watch the Endurance collapse, they have a treacherous landscape to cover with dogs and boats in tow, and eventually their rescue is tied to the ability of Shackleton and two others to scale a mountain to reach a permanent whaling station. Sturridge’s direction and Peter Coulson’s editing shine throughout the second half as each windstorm and its effect on the men rings truer than the scene before. Score, hardly noticeable in part one, creates during the second half of part two a compelling blend of picture and sound.
The actors are consistently strong across the board, whether the moment is quiet — Davidtz, as a tearful Rosalind, calling her lover’s wife, played stoically at this juncture by Nichols — or top-of-the-lungs loud — the Irishman Harry McNish (Ken Drury) threatening mutiny and getting an earful from Shackleton.
“Shackleton” is all Branagh, a pure delight to watch as he maintains his humanity in the face of terror and becomes the brave face of his 50-plus men. He gets his greatest support from Day in the role of the photographer. “In some ways you are the expedition,” Shackleton tells Hurley, his statement working as a pep talk and showing his faith in the commercial appeal of the journey’s records. Before he ever utters the phrase, its truthfulness is made implicit through the way we see Day and the manner in which he interacts with Shackleton. The two had a rift that this telepic doesn’t get into; it doesn’t shy from the fact that they were their own men in need of compromise to succeed.