I came across this film by accident, whilst battling the sub-zero temperatures of China’s Wuhan province. It put my, then, situation, into perspective, and touched me deeply.With the bare minimum of dialogue, this film, set in 1953, within the frozen tundra of the Canadian Northern Territories, shows human behaviour at its very best and worst. It is the story of two strangers (Charlie & Kanaalaq) alienated by character and culture, who fight desperately to stay alive after their plane crashes hundreds of miles from civilization. Based upon the short story, ‘Walk Well, My Brother’, by Farley Mowat, it vividly portrays the austere living conditions of the Inuits of this region, and beautifully appraises the ‘primitive’ and ‘sophisticated’ approaches to relationships, survival, and love of another.
On a routine delivery, air-pilot Charlie is met by a local Inuit family who ask him to take their sick tubercular daughter, Kanaalaq, to a far-off hospital at Yellow Knife. Charlie bluntly rejects their plea, and only relents when the family offers him some valuable ivory tusks. Mid-journey engine complications bring the plane down in the bleak yet wondrously beautifully tundra.Weighing-up the odds, Charlie decides his chances of survival would be greater if he left the sick young Kanaalaq behind, and not wanting to appear totally merciless leaves her with some token supplies – effectively consigning her to her death.
Charlie is a not unfamiliar character: young, egocentric, headstrong and happily ignorant, and has little respect for these Inuit people. He simply does not see the value in their culture, which he does not understand, and marches off into the bleak wilderness on his own. Though proficient in modern mechanics, he has a sparse knowledge on how to survive in that bleak but beautiful wasteland. Consequently, by the time he is about a week into his trek through this unforgiving tundra, he is overcome by nature and the vicissitudes of this harsh and alien environment. Fortunately for him, the young woman he left behind is far more resourceful than he is. She catches up with him, finding him on the brink of death, and nurses him back to life, becoming the key to his survival.
It is only after receiving this quiet and gentle life-saving care and attention that Charlie bothers to learn that she is called Kanaalaq. Slowly, he learns to connect with this young woman in a way that he has never connected with anyone. Not able to talk to one another they find mutual understanding through song, proximity and acknowledgement. With her illness worsening, Kanaalaq magnanimously prepares Charlie in the skills he will need to survive: making suitable clothing, fishing and hunting.
With a new understanding of each other, Kanaalaq can now also impart something of the spirit world of the Inuit. At one point during their trek they come across another wrecked plane and the corpse of another man who didn’t survive. Charlie’s first reaction is to rifle through the wreckage to find things to use, while Kanaalaq builds a stone grave for the dead man and packs the tools he will need to survive in the next life.
Through this silent teaching, Charlie learns to appreciate Kanaalaq, discovering that she has a wonderful, beautiful and mysterious inner spirit. Through his relationship with Kanaalaq, whom he begins to regard as a little sister, he finds both love for another human being, and a deep respect of the land- a love that changes him to a more evolved human being, and a respect that guides and galvanises his strength to survive his ordeal.
The ending is astonishing, deeply touching and not expressible in words. The gift of life is sensed very directly.
Annabella Piugattuk is simply sensational, giving a well-nuanced and very touching performance in the role of the dying Inuit girl, Kanaalaq. Her role is central to the film, and she is a breakout star. They searched for six months until they found her, having auditioned hundreds of young women in the process, as they were looking for someone indigenous to the area to fill the female lead. The casting director discovered her at a local teen dance in the Northwest Territories, and what a find she is.
Barry Pepper, in the role of Charlie Halliday, endears us to this deeply flawed human being who manages to overcome his shortcomings and become more of a man in the process. He infuses the character with a certain charisma, so that when his shortcomings become apparent, the viewer does not dislike him but, rather, hopes that he will see the error of his ways and find redemption.
This is not so much a love story but rather a story about love, about the enduring value of humanity, and of human respect for and knowledge of the Earth. An uplifting and deeply touching film – one of the best I’ve seen. Is it by accident that I thoroughly recommend it to you? Available on DVD at Amazon.