Our insignificance in the face of Mother Nature has claimed many souls over the years and did so again to tragic effect as this often heart-stopping drama based on the events that unfolded on top of the world almost 20 years ago shows.
Mountain movies have often been the preserve of the documentarian, perhaps most notably in Kevin Macdonald’s superb Touching The Void (2003). Feature films of this ilk are more thin on the ground and tend to emphasise action over character; Sly Stallone’s Cliffhanger (1993) and 2000’s Vertical Limit being a case in point.
Whilst there’s no denying the spectacle is there on screen in Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s visually stunning Everest, the film’s sombre tone gives way to a growing morbidity as the tragic events it portrays play out.
William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s script also tries to give as much attention to its characters as it does to the mountain, but the sheer abundance of figures on screen, many of whom are virtually indistinguishable from each other as they try to shield themselves from the hostile environment, inevitably dilutes the drama on screen.
Set in 1996, the film follows Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced and respected mountaineer whose successful Adventure Consultants business aimed at guiding less experienced clients to the top of Everest and back down has spawned rival firms looking to get in on the action; including Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness.
Rob leads his latest group of clients, including Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and journalist John Krakauer (Michael Kelly) to Everest’s Base Camp only to find it swarming with amateur guides and climbers looking to go for the summit on the same day as he is planning. The expedition turns to disaster as Everest’s notoriously unpredictable weather strikes with full force, leaving Rob and his fellow climbers battling to survive against the elements.
Much has been made of Kormákur’s desire to shoot as much as possible on location and the scenes in Nepal and Base Camp are certainly breathtaking. Whilst the mountain scenes themselves were shot at Val Senales in Italy (with the moments towards the peak shot in a studio wherein real snow was reportedly imported), the fact that many of the cast were nevertheless subjected to freezing temperatures and unforgiving terrain provides an authenticity that’s hard to fake.
In spite of an excellent cast, many of the female actors are given little to do but sit at home and look worried, in particular Keira Knightley as Rob Hall’s wife Jan and Robin Wright as Beck Weathers’ wife Peach. However, Emily Watson shines as she so often does as Helen Wilton, Adventure Consultants’ Base Camp Manager. With often just a radio as a prop in which to communicate with the increasingly stricken group, Watson imbues Helen with a stoicism that flickers with despair as she realises that some of the team aren’t going to make it back down the mountain alive.
Clarke brings a warm grace to Rob, while Hawkes is our way into a world that few of us will fully understand. Gyllenhaal feels underused, however, and the same can be said of numerous other cast members who are all ultimately left in the shadow of the mountain itself.
Whilst it never quite reaches the heights it aspires to, Everest, much like its namesake, is often a sight to behold.