Kenneth Branagh is known more for his acting skills than his modesty. If this was ever in question, the recent A&E presentation of “Shackleton” left this beyond doubt.
Branagh portrays British Capt. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the leader of a 1914 expedition to Antarctica. He and his 27 men expected to be the first crew ever to cross over the whole continent. But they had more than just the typical cold and ice to face. To raise the thousands of British pounds to fund the expedition, the charismatic captain had to solicit the Royal Geographical Society, woo private investors and most importantly, raise a crew.
Posting an advertisement noting poor wages, the long journey, danger and potential glory, Shackleton took his crew from South America to the Weddell Sea while Britain was entering World War I. He proceeded with such passionately delivered lines, as “I will not fail!” They reached the continent all right, but the travails they faced were amazingly difficult. The men grew discontented as the ship, The Endurance, is destroyed and the time passes. Without revealing the ending (and whether anyone perished on the trip), it should be noted that zealous animal lovers and people disgusted by frostbite probably should pass on this fine work.
Although Shackleton’s crew, including Henry “Skippy” McNeish, photographer Frank Hurley and second-in-command Frank Wild are fleshed out well, it is obvious the focus is on Branagh and his near-Shakespearean interpretation of the captain. Ernest wasn’t the best parent or husband, but as captain he was outstanding in times of trouble. The story seems destined to prove without Shackleton, the expedition would not have functioned as well as it did with the occasionally dictatorial but generally humorous man.
The story was filmed beautifully in Greenland. The views are stunning. But the suspenseful and well-acted story saves the two-part series from degenerating into a typical made-for-TV event. Branagh captures Shackleton’s charisma and leadership, as well as his character flaws and his suffering at the hands of sciatica.
That said, the DVD extras fail to do justice to the series. A biography and filmography are provided for Branagh, but none of the fine supporting cast members. The History Channel’s “Antarctica: A Frozen History” is lackluster, despite Antarctica’s rich history from Cook to Amundsen. “The Making of Shackleton,” a featurette, is equally dull despite the danger that the filmmakers braved as they filmed. A&E’s episode on Shackleton from the “Biography” series is the lone interesting feature. It lends valuable insight into the character of Shackleton.
Following the outstanding “Horatio Hornblower,” A&E has found another fine piece about the sea. However, they should stick to making TV and leave DVD work to other companies if this is the best they could do for a “Collector’s Edition.”