Mountain – movie review

by Peter Calder / 19 October, 2017
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This high-altitude doco is more eye-popping showreel than interesting film.

Australian director Jennifer Peedom deeply impressed with the 2015 documentary Sherpa, which started as a portrait of the climbers who literally do the heavy lifting so Westerners can make an attempt on Everest and became a highly charged examination of the political economy of the region.

This film’s generic title is presumably an attempt to suggest its aim is to be about an idea rather than a specific peak, though such an undertaking – equal parts rhapsody, panegyric and natural-history documentary – might surely have inspired a less prosaic name.

It was grandly conceived as a joint undertaking with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (it had its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House in June) and footage of that ensemble, tuning up and then striking up, opens the show.

But the orchestra’s contribution is no more distinctive or distinguished than in any soundtrack and there are more musical clichés (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto: puh-leeze) than you can shake a baton at.

Harder still to explain or forgive is the commentary, written for the film by Robert Macfarlane. His Mountains of the Mind, which won a Guardian best first book award in 2003, reveals him as a gifted, even masterful writer about mountains and mountaineering, but the prose sententiously intoned by Willem Dafoe for this film veers very close to purple.

The mountains’ lure is called a siren song at least twice; the mountaineer “in headlong pursuit of peril” replaces “mystery with mastery”. Saying that “our fascination became an obsession” (what does that even mean?) is presumptuous at best. Whose obsession is this? And the sniffy and disapproving tone the film adopts to the practitioners of extreme sports might have rung a little less hollow if it hadn’t devoted 10 high-definition minutes to their antics.

There is no denying the jaw-dropping visuals – hat tip to veteran high-altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk – captured on dozens of peaks in a dozen and a half countries (though modest captioning would have been good). The mountain-bikers (in the literal sense) and the unroped rock climbers, who seem to be in a state of perpetual ecstasy, were particularly impressive. But the film as a whole is more a showreel for its contributors; as a complete work, it’s oddly dissatisfying.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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