Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jennifer Peedom.
“The mountains we climb are not just rocks and ice, they are our dreams and desires.” So says Willem Dafoe, who narrates this documentary that explores our obsession with climbing mountains and conquering lofty peaks.
The mountains were here long before man came along, and they will be there long after we have gone. Three centuries ago the thought of climbing mountains was unthinkable, but now the idea seems to be on everybody’s bucket lists. Mountains now exert some sort of seductive spell over us, and that is what filmmaker Jennifer Peedom sets out to explore in this documentary. Peedom previously gave us the superb BAFTA nominated documentary Sherpa, which criticised the more commercial nature of the Everest climbing industry and captured the tragedy of the climbers killed during a freak storm there in 2015. Unlike that film, Mountain is more of a tribute to the explorers and thrill seekers who risk their lives to scale these peaks.
This extremely visceral film features some astonishing cinematography from high altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk (who collaborated with Peedom on Sherpa). He captures some superb and beautiful scenery that would look spectacular in the giant IMAX format. Much of the footage has been captured using drones which soar through the peaks and valleys, Go-Pro cameras and helicopter shots. The sparse, poetic and impressionistic narration was written by best-selling author Robert Macfarlane (2003’s Mountains Of The Mind, etc), and adds further context. It has been delivered in rich tones by Dafoe. But some of it comes across as a tad pretentious and a little too philosophical in its musings.
Peedom also gives us some exhilarating Warren Miller like shots of some extreme sportspeople and their daredevil stunts – free climbing, BMX riding, base jumping, extreme skiing in which people try to outrun avalanches, and parachuting off high peaks. In fact, the film opens with an unsettling and vertiginous sequence that follows free climbing Alex Hannold as he scales Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso mountain without the aid of ropes. These dare devil athletes are “half in love with themselves, half in love with oblivion.” And indeed, many of them shown here have since died. These stomach churning adrenaline rushes add a sharp contrast to the more contemplative nature of some of the other scenes that remind us that these awesome mountains are there be revered rather than conquered. But there is also footage of a volcanic eruption, that serves as a sobering reminder us that these mountains are also dangerous forces of nature.
The film has been shaped by editors Christian Gazal (Sherpa, etc) and Scott Gray (Top Of The Lake, etc) who try to match the music and images. The editors have culled some 2000 hours of footage shot in 15 different countries down to the brisk 74 minutes we see on screen. But there is a random nature to much of the juxtaposition of images and footage here, and despite the brief running time the film does seem to outstay its welcome. And some of the material is repetitive, especially as some of the footage capturing climbers scaling Mount Everest revisits Sherpa territory.
Mountain is a unique collaboration between a filmmaker’s vision and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which makes this cinematic odyssey and immersive experience. The visuals are accompanied by an orchestral score, mixing classical music with original music composed by Richard Tognetti, the chief conductor of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and recorded live at the Sydney Opera House. The score lends an emotional core to the visuals.
Mountain is certainly beautiful to look at and offers up a meditation on the grandeur of nature, but ultimately it is disposable fare that is of limited appeal.