There's a current fascination with mountains of late. There was the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet survival outing The Mountain Between Us and the based-on-true-events tragedy of Everest in the last year or so. But Jennifer Peedom's film is something different. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, the lines culled from Robert Macfarlane's writing, this documentary attempts to explore the reasons behind our desire to brave the world's highest peaks when death is almost a certainty…
Jennifer Peedom is no stranger to mountaineering with Sherpa and Miracle On Everest on her CV but she pulls out some awe-inspiring (and vertigo-inducing) visuals here. Her camera glides god-like over the wintry landscapes, gargantuan cliff faces that dwarf the would-be scalers, tips over the edge of chasms, watches free climbers brave “bone deep cold” and leap from outcrop to outcrop, always inches away from a plummet. It’s a nervous and relaxing watch at the same time.
Dafoe's sporadic narration (his voice can disappear for long stretches as Peedom allows the wonderful visuals to dominate) puzzles over this 'lunacy' and tries to understand the attraction. In history (there is some terrific footage from the 20s) and legend, mountain peaks were the place of gods, a place of fear, a place to be avoided at all costs. So what changed? Dafoe, via Macfarlane's writing, hypothesises that life was hard enough back then without putting oneself in needless danger; now that the world is a safer place to be in there's a desire to hunt down death, challenge it, embrace it, and overcome it. "Adventure replaced reverence" for those who are "half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion."
Some of the visuals are so arresting, the snow-covered peaks so untouched and perfect, it's as if they are CGI. Like a mini Baraka (the shots of mountain monks praying help with this connection), Peedom ensures the mountains on show are shot with all their beauty and hostility while behind the scenery ominous cello strings and rousing orchestral score do some subtle work.
But it's not all serious as Peedom treats the viewer to a fun sequence of clips of skiers and snowboards and bikers and base jumpers who go to extreme lengths for a thrill. One scene sees a tightrope artist making his way across peaks separated by a distance that would shame Phillipe Petit. Dafoe/Macfarlane laments at this commercialisation, saying, "This isn't exploration, it's crowd control."