Over the next couple of years we’re going to see a lot of Mount Everest in 3D. Universal is shooting a 3D spectacular on the infamous 1996 expedition and Google Earth is rumoured to be ‘doing something’ on the mountain. First of the crop, however, is this New Zealand drama documentary by the award-winning director Leanne Pooley, which is showing in UK cinemas from 23 May.
Following the style set by the Formula One biopic Senna, there are no talking head interviews bar a few brief BBC news clips. Instead, there’s a dense montage of sound interviews, drawing on archival recordings of Hillary, George Band and Mike Westmacott, as well as newly recorded interviews with Norbu Tenzing and Peter Hillary, as well as such Everest luminaries as Stephen Venables, Jim Whittaker and Peter Hackett.
The strength of the film lies in its spectacular visuals, both old and new. The 3D photography works well for the scenes in the Khumbu Icefall and the final climb up the Southeast ridge, and it’s wonderful to see the 1953 footage back on the big screen. The best reconstructions are those that fill gaps in the original film, such as the ascent of the Hillary step and Ed’s fall into a crevasse in the icefall. The points where original footage is intercut with modern-day dramatisations, such as the scenes at base camp and the British embassy in Kathmandu, don’t add much. The actors playing Hillary and Tenzing look good and perform well, but John Hunt’s double looks more like a 1950s bank manager than a grizzled British war hero determined to lead from the front.
In comparison with Touching the Void or The Summit, the story of the 1953 expedition lacks the seat-of-your-pants drama that’s the mainstay of mountaineering literature and film, but there’s something undeniably epic about the whole enterprise, which is captured in the aerial photos and the deft storytelling.
BEYOND THE EDGE (3D) directed by Leanne Pooley, 100 minutes, PG