Naomi Watts has had a penchant for highly physical roles unusual among female stars not particularly associated with action movies. It made her acrobatics the most special effect amidst so many CG wonders in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” and a vividly plausible victim of grueling crises in films like “Funny Games” and “The Impossible.” Of course, one can always get too much of a good thing, as when recent, regrettable “The Desperate Hour” seemed to reduce the hot-button topic of school shootings to a gimmicky “Watch this fearless actress run the gamut of emotions while JOGGING!”
Fortunately, there is nothing gratuitous about the physicality demanded of Watts by “Infinite Storm,” which is based on a real-life incident that took place in New Hampshire’s White Mountains a dozen years ago. Visually splendid, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s second English-language feature (following 2019’s “The Other Lamb”) is an impressive outdoor adventure ideally suited to the more athletic side of its star’s skill set, even if it’s not quite so rewarding in terms of emotional involvement—we feel more exasperation than inspiration at watching our heroine struggle to rescue an uncooperative manbaby from the peril he’s put himself (and her) in. Bleecker Street is releasing the international co-production to U.S. theaters on March 25.
While she grumbles at getting out of bed before dawn one November morning, we quickly realize from her gear and meticulous preparation that Pam Bales (Watts) is no casual day-hiker. Setting out to climb Mount Washington on a date of personal remembrance, undaunted by ominous weather reports or snow already on the ground, she’s well-prepared for any emergency. Still, hours later she is jarred to hear a human cry near the summit in blizzardy conditions, then appalled to detect tracks indicating someone traipsed this far on footwear no sturdier than sneakers.
“Infinite Storm” briefly looks like it will turn into a much colder, gender-flipped “127 Hours,” as Pam suffers a mishap that for a few minutes consumes all of her attention. Once extricated, however, she continues searching, soon duly finding the very inaptly dressed younger man she dubs John (Billy Howle) half-frozen and semi-conscious on an exposed peak. How or why he got there is a mystery for the time being. Regardless, he must be gotten back down the mountain before nightfall, when the temperature will steeply drop even further.
The good news is that Pam (who’s a nurse) has ample emergency medical as well as wilderness rescue training. The bad news is that rescuing “John” is like minding a six-foot toddler who occasionally turns into deadweight. His behavior is so irrational, she questions whether he’s on drugs. Even when he’s not falling off precipices or into bodies of water by accident, he’s frequently running off or refusing to budge in a stubborn sulk. Not only does he incur injuries that hobble their progress, he often seems resentful at being rescued at all.
We eventually learn the cause for his underlying despair, even as scattered flashbacks finally explain the longterm mourning that led Pam to this remote place today as well. But while there’s some poignancy to these late revelations, most of “Infinite Storm” is a bit hogtied in terms of viewer empathy, because “John” (the real-life rescuee never did reveal his name) doesn’t make it easy for us, let alone for his dogged savior. Joshua Rollins’ script is effective in limiting itself almost exclusively to the 24 hours or so in which these events unfold. Still, that also results in a certain narrowness of character dimension, despite the very game lead performances.
But If it falls a bit short as human drama, however, Szumowska’s latest — a 180-degree turn from her last, the excellent Polish allegorical tale “Never Gonna Snow Again” — is fully satisfying as an appreciation of Nature as magnificent adversary. Allowing for quibbles with the Slovenian Alps as a convincing stand-in for New England’s White Mountains, “Storm” is both scenically spectacular and convincingly rugged in atmosphere. Once again there’s superb work from Michal Englert, the director’s longtime collaborator as cinematographer (and sometime co-writer). Though the storytelling scale is much less epic, his widescreen imagery renders landscape and the elements just as imposingly beautiful as in something like “The Revenant,” making Nature a driving narrative force rather than mere backdrop.
Other key contributions are tactfully restrained, including Lorne Balfe’s original score. Englert is credited as co-director, though that gets buried in the end credits, whereas he shared directorial billing upfront with Szumowska on the very different, ironical and largely interior-set “Snow.”