Any thoughts that Baltasar Kormákur may have bitten off more than he could chew in attempting to recreate the 1996 disaster on Everest are swept away by an avalanche of live action derring-do, extraordinary 3D visuals and heart-in-mouth drama. As openers go, Venice has bagged a commercial film that packs a serious punch.
Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal play the two accomplished climbers, New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer, who led high-end tours to the summit of the mountain. The question of whether it’s advisable to take amateurs, even avid climbers, on such an arduous and risky adventure is a moot point, which the film doesn’t shy away from. As one hardened pro muses, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” Yet it’s impossible to leave the film without the bitter realization that human frailty and folly played its part.
Kormákur, then, has played a good hand, combining fine actors and a solid script that gives a keen sense of the technical considerations involved in the climb, with spectacular visuals that take our breath away.
Accomplished screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and William Nicholson (“Gladiator”), commendably takes their time laying the groundwork – acclimatizing us at base camp, if you like, for as long as Hall keeps his colleagues and clients there to prepare for the arduous haul ahead. Hall and Fischer are presented as stylistic opposites, as reflected in the names of their firms: Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness. Hall (effectively the film’s lead character) is a professional and responsible guide, maintaining safety as his bottom line and, as his rival Fischer calls him, “a hand holder”. In contrast, the pony-tailed Fischer is more genial and gung-ho on the outside, asserting that “it’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude” that matters; though it’s called for, he’s no less responsible.
Others making an impression are Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), Hall’s right-hand woman at base camp, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) Hall’s neediest clients, both of whose refusal to accept defeat will prove costly, and Anatoly Boukreev (Baltasar’s fellow Icelander Ingvar Siggert Sigurosson), Fischer’s taciturn, non-nonsense partner on the climb.
Filming at the foot of Everest but more prominently in the Dolomites, and with augmenting visual effects, Kormákur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Cinderella Man,” “The Da Vinci Code”) excel in putting us on the mountain. The visuals are simply jaw-dropping, whether of yaks being led through the snow, a sweeping helicopter shot that takes us through a canyon before swooping over the characters traversing it on a ropewalk, or the ‘practice’ climb, which sees Weathers stumble on a ladder across an icy chasm.
The latter is a moment when Hall demonstrates his heroism and Fischer his professionalism. It also comes as a result of having got stuck in a logjam of climbers, during which time Weathers has frozen a tad more than is helpful. A problem for everyone that year was that there were 20 teams on the mountain, all vying for the optimum window in the weather, apparently using each others’ ropes and (it’s later inferred) oxygen that were placed in advance on the route. And tensions brew at base camp that will resonate when everything goes to pot on the mountain.
They start the assent proper just before the film’s half-way mark. After that the true physical demands are made keenly apparent (Hall has already told them that at this altitude “our bodies are literally dying”), as are the peculiarities of the shifting weather. Through no fault of his own – other than, perhaps, the refusal to say ‘no’ to his clients – Hall has already lost control of his situation before the storm hits. Despite our knowing the outcome (those who don’t would benefit from avoiding Google), the tension reaches an impressive level – our immersion in it highlighted when Kormákur suddenly cuts to Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), in bed in their New Zealand home; the jolt, from the noise and peril on the mountain to the silent peace of a domestic space, is as shocking as almost anything else we experience.
Clarke has been moving his way up the pecking order for a while now, with roles in “White House Down,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Terminator Genisys.” But this is his meatiest part, and he presents a beautiful portrait of a man who is brave, resourceful, but perhaps a little too compassionate for his own good. Gyllenhaal offers a nice foil in a supporting role, all hippy cool and bravado. Among the women – not all spectators by any account – Watson, Knightley and Robin Wright (as Weather’s wife) are fine in small roles, but it’s Naoko Mori as a climber seeking to attain all seven peaks who really breaks hearts.
After the real-life incident there were many conflicting accounts of what happened. One gets the sense that the scriptwriters have taken it all on board; there are questions raised about missing ropes and oxygen, the rights and wrongs of this decision and that. But they also capture the romance, misguided or otherwise, of what drives these men and women to take such risks. Hawkes’ postman turned climber, who’s doing it to inspire the kids in his child’s school, puts it best. “To see a beauty no-one has seen – it would be a crime not to.”