A fear of flying is no joke, except if it’s the subject of a comedy film. Northern Comfort opens with its terrified passengers holding on for dear life and sincerely freaking out all while aboard a small plane that hasn’t even left the ground. That’s essentially the calmest and most believable moment in the entire film, which starts out simply enough and quickly goes awry, presenting a worst-case scenario in which its already eccentric and anxiety-driven characters have their limits tested with no hope of relief or escape.
At the center of Northern Comfort is Sarah (Lydia Leonard), a developer who is supposed to travel from London to Cape Verde with her boyfriend and his daughter – a milestone trip that is of great significance. She cuts it close, however, planning to go with them just one day after her Fearless Flyers experience flight. When that important test run is delayed by a day and the course’s assistant instructor Charles (Simon Manyonda) takes charge when his superior can’t make it, things go drastically wrong, stranding Sarah and the other passengers, author and veteran Edward (Timothy Spall), techie Alphons (Sverrir Gudnason), and his influencer girlfriend Coco (Ella Rumpf), in Iceland.
It’s important to stress that there is nothing about this film that will help nervous fliers get over their discomfort, and, though they’re played for laughs, the scenes involving terror and turbulence have the potential to be quite scarring. Watching Sarah is particularly unnerving, as she is on the verge of hyperventilating and tightly grips the armrest, jolted every few seconds by the loud sound of the rubber band Edward snaps on his wrist to allay his own panic. These fears feel very real, and, just as the three students (Coco loves flying but is just there so that she can get Alphons to travel around the world to build up her career) start to overcome them, that’s precisely when the real trouble starts.
As if the antics weren’t outlandish enough when these scared adults were confronting the notion of being trapped on a plane in the sky for several hours, things only get more ridiculous once they’re in Iceland and begin stressing about how to get home. Watching these characters crack doesn’t feel particularly nice, but things go further as each person tries to take control of the situation and finds that there is still much they cannot do. It’s difficult to take the chain of events seriously, and to enjoy them fully requires an acceptance of all absurdity. Very little of what happens in this film is likely to happen in reality, let alone all of it, and therefore it’s necessary to be open to everything to take full advantage of the entertainment this film can offer.
Though the film’s events don’t feel terribly realistic, its lead performance is extremely believable. Leonard captures the sense of dread and paralyzing anxiety that Sarah feels and communicates it viscerally, reining in the comedy of it to portray someone who legitimately can’t handle the situations in which she finds herself. She’s remarkably committed to the role and helps make the film work better than it might have with a less competent actress. While Edward is a fully over-the-top character, it’s always fun to see Spall adding some sinister, all-too-serious personality to any character.
For however much it tries to stretch, this film sticks with it and sees it through all the way to its wild end. Its mid-film Icelandic setting is alternately beautiful and frightening, blanketed in snow and putting the travelers in a different kind of peril that doesn’t seem to scare them anywhere nearly as much as being in flight in calm weather. This is a disaster movie that continuously comes back to the comedy, milking each moment for all the humor there in a scenario that, presented in a dramatic thriller, would surely be no laughing matter. This is a zany ride that often feels like it doesn’t know where it’s headed, but, just as the students would like to think for themselves, audiences are in relatively good hands.
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Northern Comfort makes its world premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section at SXSW.