Branagh Heats A&E's 'Shackleton'

The opening installment of Shackleton, A&E Network's fact-based, two-part miniseries about British adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton's dangerous Antarctic expedition, moves at a glacier's pace. That's likely to hurt the ratings for the miniseries' finale, in which the battle between man and nature generates intense drama.

Charles Sturrridge, Shackleton's writer and director, and producer Selwyn Roberts (who also collaborated on A&E's Longitude) deserve praise for this epic, but they might have done better to follow the footsteps of Turner Network Television's Glory & Honor. That 1998 telepic condensed the North Pole explorers' real-life exploits into a gripping two-hour movie — and came up with a more enticing title.

The standout performer throughout this $10 million project is clearly Kenneth Branagh as the charismatic Shackleton.

In fall 1914, with England poised to enter World War I, Shackleton tells a newspaper reporter he's departing to carry on "our white warfare." War may be hell, but Shackleton and his 27-man crew soon find their own cold-weather version near Antarctica.

The first two hours dwell too much on Shackleton's dogged pursuit of funding for his expedition; his original intent was to cross Antarctica for the first time. We also see the explorer's wife learn firsthand that her husband has a mistress, although that generates remarkably few sparks.

Even the first five minutes of the second installment could easily have been deleted. Focusing on a party aboard the ship Endurance, that segment serves only to slow down the narrative.

Once that's over, the drama heightens as Shackleton and his men find the Endurance
trapped in ice. The ship eventually sinks — 1,000 miles from their destination. What ensues is an incredible tale of survival, one that would be hard to believe were it not based on fact.

Kudos also should go to director of photography Henry Braham for his scenic shots of frigid moonscapes – actually filmed in Greenland, rather than Antarctica.

After a brutal land-and-sea trek to Elephant Island, Shackleton and five men must sail one of their three lifeboats to seek help 700 miles away, at South Georgia — the island from which they'd departed two years earlier.

A few of those who portray crew members manage to emerge from the ensemble, notably Hurley, the expedition's photographer (Matt Day); McNish, the cantankerous carpenter (Ken Drury); and Frank Wild, Shackleton's righthand man (Lorcan Cranitch).

A&E's Shackleton
will air April 7 and 8 at 8 p.m.