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‘Arctic’ a literally and figuratively chilling survival tale

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Mads Mikkelsen is excellent in “Arctic.” (Courtesy Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street)

Set amid nature at its nastiest and featuring a magnetic Mads Mikkelsen, “Arctic” is an engrossing, affecting story of survival and kindness.

Directed and cowritten by Joe Penna, making his feature debut, this Iceland-shot drama portrays endurance and ingenuity, like “127 Hours” or “All Is Lost.” Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, it’s distinguished by its chilly polar setting and its hero’s altruism.

On a frozen landscape where a polar bear roams, Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen), a bearded pilot whose plane has crashed, has been living in the body of his broken plane for, apparently, some time.

Penna and cowriter Ryan Morrison give Overgard no back story and few lines, but his resourcefulness becomes clear as he catches trout in holes he’s dug in the ice, or carves a large “SOS” in the snow, or sets up a signaling device to attract rescuers.

A helicopter indeed arrives, but it, too, crashes. One of its two pilots — an unnamed young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) — survives but is barely conscious. Overgard transports her to his nearby broken-plane shelter and treats her wounds. When he finds a photograph in which she’s posing with a man and a baby, he places it next to her.

Though this stranger says only a couple words, her presence energizes Overgard. Determined to keep her alive, he bundles her up, straps her to a makeshift sled and drags it over the treacherous landscape toward a camp where she can receive care.

The adversity-filled journey threatens to defeat Overgard. Is his effort to save this stranger’s life jeopardizing his own survival?

On the whole, Penna’s made a formula picture. It contains a seemingly doomed protagonist who, with fortitude and ingenuity, endures. He braves extraordinary dangers — including blizzards and the polar bear.

But as survival thrillers go, the movie is compelling. It’s also a poignant story of decency and hope. It also demonstrates the power of minimalist storytelling.

Penna’s uncluttered style and unrushed pacing yield absorbing, believable scenarios — no excessive plot strands or romantic silliness, as in the snowbound “The Mountain Between Us.”

The drama also delivers chills, including the bear confrontation.

Most impressive, though, is the emotion. Overgard’s attention to the stranger he’s keeping alive is genuinely moving.

Mikkelsen is terrific. Known for playing dark or troubled characters, the Danish actor conveys, on his soulfully stoic face, stirringly raw emotion. And, action-hero style, his character convincingly contends with nature’s brutality.

He supplies humor, too; for example, in small triumphs, such as the meal Overgard cooks with trout and instant noodles.

Cinematography by Tomas Örn Tomasson and music by Joseph Trapanese enhance the sober but absorbing tone.

Three stars
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smaradottir
Written by: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Directed by: Joe Penna
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

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