Roald Amundsen is probably best known as the polar explorer who beat Robert Scott to the South Pole. Amundsen, a new biopic from Epsen Sandberg, shows us some of his noteworthy expeditions, but also more about Amundsen as a person—and that isn’t always flattering.
Roald Amundsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) has his sights set, at the beginning of the film, with reaching the North Pole and discovering what might be there. But when Americans claim to have reached the pole (something that history disputes) he shifts his attention to the South Pole, knowing that Scott is already putting together an expedition. He never mentions the change in plans to investors or to the English. That kind of dishonest self-interest becomes the real focus of the story, more than the exploits themselves.
The story is structured around a conversation between Roald’s estranged brother Leon (Christian Rubeck) and his finacee Bess Magids (Kathering Waterston) at a time that Roald is lost and possibly dead on one of his attempts to fly to the North Pole. Leon was the pragmatic and businesslike side of the brotherly partnership. Bess, a Canadian, was married when she and Roald first got together.
Leon relates the story of Roald’s obsession with the poles and many of the ways that Roald was reckless and uncaring about anything other than his success. For example, we see that Amundsen’s mindset for the trip to the South Pole was that of a suicide mission. He didn’t really care if they all got back, so long as he got there first. (The irony is that Scott’s expedition did perish on their attempt.)
As the film moves between that conversation and the various expeditions Roald undertook, we get a picture of someone who had great ambition, but perhaps was not as worthy of adulation as we might expect. When Leon tells him that the finances are no longer available and that things must change, Roald will have nothing to do with him thereafter. When Roald writes his autobiography, it is filled with bitterness.
I think we know that most of those considered heroes have flaws. That is very apparent with Roald Amundsen. We see both sides of him in the film. It illustrates the difference between doing great things and being a great person. But it never gives us a chance to find his redeeming (or redeemed) nature. The film’s subtitle is “The Greatest Expedition”. Perhaps his success in going places no other person had ever been is not the real story. It could be that he failed at ‘the greatest expedition”—life.
Amundsen is available on virtual cinema through local theaters and on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.