Mountain

Review by Joe Boden

Directed by

Jennifer Peedom

Starring

Willem Dafoe

Anticipation.

Sherpa was an intriguing glimpse into the ties between man and mountain.

Enjoyment.

The breathtaking images – and Dafoe’s narration – is enough to elevate the film above its missteps.

In Retrospect.

Lingers for the quality of its visuals.

This visually arresting documentary asks why we climb, but doesn’t offer any satisfactory answers.

Opening with footage of a climber clinging to the craggy incline of a sheer rock face with a grin of pure ecstasy, Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Mountain never underplays the awesome scale of its eponymous subjects. Neither does it diminish the fact that our natural inclination towards danger is often outweighed by a sense of grandeur and wonder.

Despite the opportunity for indulgence, Mountain manages to avoid the pitfalls of many a nature documentary which relies solely upon images of spectacular landscapes. Here, excerpts from Robert Macfarlane’s meditative travel journal Mountains of the Mind ensure the film maintains its spectacle without skimping on information. Especially when Willem Dafoe’s lends his dulcet tones to the narration.

Peedom casts her net wide over the history of mountaineering exploration. One particular highlight is how Macfarlane’s text deals with an imperialistic past – where westerners used mountaineering as a precedent for claiming territory and instilling order over smaller communities – that presents uncomfortable parallels with the present day. It’s an insightful moment, but it hints at how the text occasionally veers into territory covered by the director’s previous film Sherpa.

More damningly, not all of Macfarlane’s observations are profound enough to contend with the simple pleasures of watching a man launch himself into oblivion off a rocky outcropping, or two climbers sharing a joint atop a snowy peak. His musings have a tendency to veer from one extreme towards the next. In one moment these men revel in the reckless abandon of daredevilry, U-turn into an admonition of Western ignorance and then settle in to gawp at some gnarly snowboarding, man.

Mountain sheds the occasional fat of its source material when it reconciles cinematographer Renan Ozturk’s breathtaking camerawork with Macfarlane’s more focussed insights on why we look to the titular behemoths with such reverence. It’s less effective when offering GoPro footage of cyclists traversing precarious ledges in scenes that fall more in the YouTube/extreme sports ballpark.

The accompaniment of Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra cultivates an air of menace and brings a heft to the underpinning of threat and the knowledge that at any moment the balance of man and mountain can tip in the latter’s favour. Partnering a tracking shot of a wing-suit diver across fields of cattle, through valleys and over shimmering rivers, they create a moment of genuine awe that steals the show. It’s ironically the film’s peak, one of a handful of moments that redeems a scattershot approach.

Published 15 Dec 2017

Tags: Jennifer Peedom Willem Dafoe

Anticipation.

Sherpa was an intriguing glimpse into the ties between man and mountain.

Enjoyment.

The breathtaking images – and Dafoe’s narration – is enough to elevate the film above its missteps.

In Retrospect.

Lingers for the quality of its visuals.

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