Directed by Isabel Coixet
Written by Miguel Barros
104 minutes, rated M

When Nobody Wants the Night, as it was called, opened the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, it was more endless than now – by 14 minutes. The Catalan director, Isabel Coixet, has recut it and replaced the voice-over, after a scornful reception.

That’s hard to understand: why would anyone object to a film that opens with Juliette Binoche shooting a polar bear, whooping with joy as its blood drains onto the snow? She explains in voice-over that ‘they said it wasn’t reasonable’ for her to risk her life to join her husband Robert Peary on his final expedition to reach the North Pole.  This takes place on Ellesmere Island, northern Canada, in 1908. It’s true that attitudes to killing such beautiful creatures have changed. That’s probably why Coixet beats us over the head with this scene so early, to make that point, but it’s counterproductive. If we’re going to go into the white wilderness with this woman, it would be nice to discover her finer qualities first, rather than just her arrogance, pride and hubris.

The film is ‘inspired by real characters’, and it quotes from Josephine Peary’s books about the trips she made north with her husband. The fact that this last voyage wasn’t one of them isn’t mentioned. She stayed at home that time, an inconvenient truth. In Miguel Barros’s trudging script, Mrs Peary’s declarations of unbridled love for Robert are spoken in voice-over and in her exchanges with the men who warn her not to proceed. That makes them seem unconvincing. Coixet resorts to telling because she can’t show: Robert Peary is not in the film.

He has gone ahead, aiming for the North Pole. Josephine wants to catch up, for whatever reason. She pressures the sullen Irishman, Bram Trevor (Gabriel Byrne) to take her north, risking not just her own life but his, and that of his Inuit offsider, Ning (Orto Ignatiussen). That leads her finally to a hut, Peary’s forward base, as winter approaches. The Inuit turn back, except for one young woman who calls herself Allaka, or simply ‘this woman’. As the endless night descends, the patrician Josephine, in stylish Russian hat, hunkers down to wait for her man, listening to Caruso on the phonograph. Alllaka prefers her igloo. It’s hard to recognise Rinko Kikuchi as the tattooed Allaka.

Of all risible elements here, the biggest is stupidity. Josephine Peary may have been headstrong, but she was no dope. Perhaps she did over-winter on one of the earlier trips with this dogged Inuit companion, but Coixet doesn’t make us believe what we’re seeing. The first half is all about getting into this position, where two women have to depend on each other. The second half is where the drama lives, as Josephine’s hubris unravels and Allaka’s story widens, but by then it’s too late. Coixet has blown our good will, by incessant prodding and pointing: look how little she really cares for the Inuit, how spiritual these people are, how powerful is this landscape and how paltry her understanding of it, see what a fool this white woman is.

By the arrival of winter, you just want to push her out into the first storm but no, we must endure many weeks of candle-light and dog-eating yet. Even worse, the many exchanges in Pidgin English as ‘this woman’ brings ‘that woman’ up to speed on Artic survival. She’s not worth it, you want to scream: let the silly cow go for another moonlight walk with her cane and hat.

The film was partly shot in the gorgeous wilderness of Norway. Shooting in snow is always arduous. A pity then that none of the characters except Allaka has the slightest credibility or even much humanity. That may be the movie’s final downfall: the great height from which the director looks down on these (non-native) mortals. It’s less a movie than a lecture – the woman behind the woman who chased the man who went to the Pole. Except she didn’t.