Some four years in the making, and by all accounts an arduous and demanding shooting experience, Far North marks a stunning return to a more personal form of cinema for director Asif Kapadia. Having followed up his sparse and lovingly received samurai drama The Warrior with an unhappy excursion into Hollywood with Sarah Michelle Gellar remake The Return, Kapadia and producer Bertrand Faivre searched long and hard for a project that would re-ignite their creative fires.
The spark was a deliberately lean short story by Sara Maitland, the kernel of which is a dark and quietly epic tale set in the harsh beauty of the Arctic. Adapted by Kapadia and writer Tim Miller, Far North initially centres around Saiva (Michelle Yeoh) and Anja (Michelle Krusiac), two women struggling to survive on the frozen wastes. The impending threat of marauding soldiers intent on taking over their land forces the pair into an even more desolate environment – a remote island seemingly adrift from all other human life. One day, however, a figure, Loki (Sean Bean), appears on the ice, close to death, and collapses. Despite her initial fears and reservations about allowing this intruder to penetrate their isolation, Saiva saves Loki and helps nurse him back to health. Aware of the competition for his affections, Loki ultimately forms a passionate connection with Anja, leaving Saiva lonely, jealous and defeated. When the new lovers announce their plans to leave for a life together, a desperate Saiva acts with terrifying and tragic consequences.
With The Warrior representing the East and Far North the North, the film marks the second part in a planned series of collaborations between Kapadia and Miller covering the four points of the compass. A direct lineage is also maintained with Kapadia retaining the hub of the creative personnel that made his debut such an unforgettable experience and one of the standout works in recent British cinema. Alongside Miller and Faivre these collaborators include cinematographer Roman Osin, editor Ewa J Lind and composer Dario Marianelli. Shot on the stunning archipelago of Svalbard, the furthermost Northern settlement in the world, as well as on the Arctic mainland of Norway, this sparse and crisply composed variation on Don Siegel’s The Beguiled is a frequently exhilarating work that offers a relatively rare glimpse into a world and a way of life rarely depicted on screen.
Again indulging the love of folk tales that informed The Warrior, this time around events take a darker and perhaps more complex turn with the story ending not in redemption but with Saiva carrying out a horrific deed which fulfils the curse that the shaman pronounced when she was born. Far North is also tantalisingly ambiguous, with the relationship between Saiva and Anja left deliberately opaque. It is never made clear if the older woman and younger woman are mother and child, sisters, cousins or even lovers. What is apparent is that they need one another to stay alive and that everything changes when Loki comes into their lives. Eyebrows have been raised at the seemingly incongruous casting of Sean Bean, but he brings considerable presence to the part, offering a disquieting mix of innocence and arrogance as he splits the precious union of Saiva and Anja asunder.
The Warrior heralded a major new talent, but The Return was a disappointment.
Crisp and intelligent, Kapabia builds from a simple premise to an unforgettable conclusion.
A brilliantly composed and distinctly otherwordly return to form.