Icelandic writer-director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (“Under the Tree”) makes a smooth transition to English-language directing with the high-concept comedy “Northern Comfort,” co-written with longtime collaborators Halldór Laxness Halldórsson and Tobias Munthe. It centers on a disparate group of people who share a disabling fear of air travel, which they are trying to overcome through a high-end fearless flyers course. As a final challenge, the class is scheduled for a short, roundtrip “exposure” flight during which they should face and conquer their phobias. But this practical plan soon runs into some literal and figurative turbulence. Combining human drama and absurdist comedy, “Northern Comfort” should fly into other festivals before making a comfortable landing at a boutique art-house distributor or streamer.
Inwardly and outwardly quaking as they leave Gatwick for a fateful trip to Iceland are successful property developer Sarah (a sympathetic Lydia Leonard, the lead in “Ten Percent,” the British remake of “Call My Agent!”); Edward (Timothy Spall), a special forces veteran turned best-selling crime writer; and a social media influencer couple, comprised of the shapely Coco (Ella Rumpf) and knit-hatted Alphons (Sverrir Gudnason, playing against type), a timid app developer who can’t fly without a drink or three. Meanwhile, standing in for the course leader to supervise the trip is Charles (Simon Manyonda), an over-enthusiastic newbie who makes some inappropriate and unfortunate decisions.
After a journey that is bumpy in more ways than one, the news that their return flight is mysteriously delayed by many hours sends the group’s anxiety levels soaring. As they leave the airport for a nearby luxury wellness hotel, their coping mechanisms go into overdrive as they try to manage their fear and vulnerability.
Iceland’s distinctive landscape, which played a leading role in Sigurðsson’s first two films, the summer-set “Either Way” and “Paris of the North,” takes more of a cameo here, appearing dangerously snow- and ice-covered and lit by misty moonlight. For Edward, it sparks flashbacks to his traumatic service in the Falklands. The others, however, find that they appreciate it best from the steaming thermal waters of the hotel or the observation windows framing a cozy lounge where the bartender mixes the titular “Northern Comfort.”
Speaking of cameos, both Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (the black sheep brother from “Lamb”) and American actor Rob Delaney score strongly in theirs. As an uber-chill tech entrepreneur named Dries, Haraldsson catalyzes a surprising reckoning in the relationship of Coco and Alphons. Meanwhile Delaney’s Ralph, a smiling, mustached cargo pilot, tries to pick up Sarah with an unexpected technique.
With the film clocking in at a jaunty 97 minutes, Leonard’s Sarah gets the most backstory and screen time. She especially wants to conquer her flying fears so she can go on holiday with her new boyfriend, divorced dad Tom (Emun Elliot) and his precocious six-year-old daughter. Offering Sarah extra incentive to solve her problem is Tom’s ex-wife Liz (Gina Bramhill), a controlling witch who would like nothing better than to join them herself.
While Spall looks like he is having fun launching some clandestine military tactics, the comely Rumpf, known for her fierce work in French and German films such as “Raw,” “Tiger Girl” and “Soul of a Beast” is rather underserved here. But on the bright side, the part at least proves that she speaks fluent English and that the camera loves her no matter what she has on.
Balancing empathy for his eccentric characters with overall entertainment value, the Columbia University-trained Sigurðsson shows that he has the chops to work internationally should he choose to. Danish cinematographer Niels Thastum uses tight framing to up the claustrophobia quotient of the film’s many enclosed spaces. The all-pro tech package should look fine on screens both big and small, while the undercurrent of composer Daníel Bjarnson’s peppy score captures the characters’ tension and fears.
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