Kon-Tiki, movie review: Brilliantly shot epic voyage captures feelings of awe and terror

(15) Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg, 118 mins. Starring: Pal Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgard

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The Independent Culture

Produced by the Oscar- winning Jeremy Thomas, this dramatisation of the true story of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's epic 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a Balsa-wood raft is a stirring affair. It is beautifully shot and has the same fierce intelligence about it that you find in its producer's other epic "quest" movies.

Heyerdahl (at least as played by Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen) makes a disconcerting action hero. He doesn't even know how to swim and seems a cerebral, politely spoken figure. We soon discover, though, that he has a Fitzcarraldo-like stubbornness and obsessiveness. He is prepared to risk his marriage and the lives of his crew to prove that it would have been possible to sail to Polynesia from South America in ancient times. Thor is pompous and self-absorbed but also an excellent leader.

It may seem baffling to us that the ethnographer and his crew were prepared to expose themselves to such suffering in order to win an academic argument. One of the points that the film makes, however, is that these men were restless after the Second World War, and were not ready to fritter away their lives as fridge salesmen or office workers. They were desperate for adventure. The huge popularity of the book and the Oscar-winning documentary about the voyage proved that their scheme had caught the public imagination.

In plot terms, there are hurdles here which the film- makers don't entirely overcome. This isn't a Scott of the Antarctic-style tale of glorious British failure in which an expedition ends in tragedy and death. It is also a challenge for the film-makers to stoke up the drama in a story which involves several Norwegian men stuck on an ocean raft.

Yes, there are storms. Yes, there are sharks, whales and flying fish. Yes, the radio goes a bit wonky, the parrot gets itself into trouble and one or two of the men behave badly when the raft is becalmed and it looks as if they are simply waiting to die – but, overall, the voyage is remarkably smooth. Strangely, some of the best moments in the film are those away from the raft – the scenes of Thor and his wife in the South Pacific early in their marriage or the New York-set scenes in which publishers pour scorn on the would-be explorer's ideas.

What the film doesn't skimp on is spectacle. Brilliantly shot in a rugged National Geographic-like way by the cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen, it captures the sailors' feelings of both awe and terror about their self-inflicted predicament .