Thursday, 13 December 2018

Talk about having a mountain to climb

A FEATURE film based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster — about which the journalist Jon

A FEATURE film based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster — about which the journalist Jon Krakauer wrote the book Into Thin Air — is about to hit cinema screens.

Unfortunately, it is culturally impossible to be British, sentient, of a certain age and not, when coming across the word "Everest", mentally hear the late Ted Moult intoning: "You only fit double glazing once, so fit the best, fit Everest."

Around the time Moult was speaking those immortal words to camera, two British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, were contemplating their assault on the then unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.

They managed the ascent, but then disaster struck — as readers of Simpson’s award-winning book Touching the Void — later made into an equally acclaimed drama-documentary by Kevin MacDonald — will be aware.

MacDonald’s film came out a while ago now, in 2003, but it remains the most successful documentary in British cinema history. That’s what a film like Everest is up against.

Based on the real events of the disaster of May 10 and 11, 1996, when eight climbers were caught in a blizzard and died, Everest focuses on the summit and survival attempts of two expedition groups — one led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the other by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke).

The disaster, variously documented in a series of books, of which Krakauer’s was only the first, was the deadliest day on Everest until the 16 fatalities of the 2014 avalanche and the 18 deaths resulting from avalanches caused by the Nepal earthquake in April this year.

That’s a lot of deaths and a lot of people whose sensitivities the filmmakers needed to tiptoe around. To give one example, Krakauer’s book was to prove controversial in its portrayal of Anatoli Boukreev, a guide working for Scott Fischer who is portrayed by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in the film.

One of the reasons MacDonald’s treatment of Touching the Void succeeded so brilliantly was that it was able to stick closely to the narrative of the book while at the same time updating it with fresh interviews with Simpson and Yates.

With only two main protagonists to deal with, it also struck a dignified balance between recounting the key events and dramatising them.

The risk for a feature film like Everest is that it has to tread an incredibly fine line between respect for the "true story" and trying to tell a great story on screen.

Too respectful and people will say it’s boring, regardless of how good the cinematography and the special effects may be. Too much emphasis on the latter, and people will say the film isn’t dignified enough.

Making a good film about Everest? Talk about having a mountain to climb.

Review: Matthew Wilson

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