DAVID STRATTON REVIEWS THE ACTION BLOCKBUSTER EVEREST
Baltasar Kormakur began making films in his native Iceland before heading for Hollywood, and having been raised in that wild and beautiful island nation he presumably knows a thing or two about mountains, glaciers and wild winter weather. Who better, then, to direct Everest, a visually stunning film about an ill-fated attempt on the summit of the world’s highest mountain during which eight people died? More recent disasters (one of them vividly captured in Australian Jennifer Peedom’s remarkable documentary, Sherpa) have proved that Everest still poses a formidable challenge to the intrepid mountaineer more than 60 years after its conquest by the first men who lived to tell the tale: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
First, and most significantly, Kormakur and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino have given us some of the best images of the actual process of climbing this iconic mountain. Repeated long shots show the climbers, in their brightly coloured climbing gear, as tiny, insignificant specks against a backdrop of the vast grandeur of the Himalayan peak. In fact, much of the film was shot in the Italian Alps, and there are also key scenes that could only have been re-created on a sound stage — but the point is that it looks real, and scarily so. In addition to the superb photography, enhanced, for once, by 3-D, the soundtrack is crucial; the constant howl of the wind in itself reminds us what a stark and alien environment this is.
Another thing that comes across clearly is how crowded it’s becoming. Shots of the base camp, with its brightly coloured tents, illustrate just how many people are now adding a climb to the summit of Everest to their bucket list.
It was New Zealander Rob Hall, very well portrayed by Australian actor Jason Clarke, who was partly to blame for all of this when, in the early 1990s, he founded Adventure Consultants, a company that — for hefty fees — offers the ultra-adventurous traveller the experience of a lifetime. By April 1996, when the film begins, several rival companies were offering similar adventures, among them Mountain Madness, run by American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a group of particularly bolshie South Africans.
After farewelling his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), in Christchurch, Hall sets out with his team, including camp manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and the team doctor (Elizabeth Debicki).
Clients include journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who leaves behind a wife (Robin Wright) and kids, Seattle postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who almost made the summit on a previous trip and wants one more crack at it, and diminutive Japanese adventurer Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled six of the seven highest summits in the world and wants to complete the collection.
In the early scenes, Kormakur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy establish these characters and — using plenty of on-screen titles — the locations of the various camps and their altitudes. The climbers are given a sensible briefing by Hall and his team, and all is set for the climb on May 10. But, tragically, things go badly wrong when an unanticipated storm hits the mountain and Hall’s decency reveals a fatal flaw that places several of the participants in mortal danger.
Although visually magnificent and very decently acted, Everest doesn’t completely satisfy. Perhaps it’s partly to do with the fact that, with the characters’ faces covered by sunglasses, helmets, ice and snow, it’s challenging at crucial moments to tell them apart. And while the climbers face danger on the mountain, the women who wait for them — plus Sam Worthington, who plays Hall’s friend Guy Cotter — are saddled with rather thankless roles. Disappointingly, too, the sherpas who bear so much of the burden of these climbs play little role in the on-screen drama. These quibbles aside, Everest is dominated by the majesty of the mountain, not the people who attempt to reach its summit — and perhaps that is as it should be.
Elia Kazan’s powerful film of the last third of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden had its world premiere in New York on March 9, 1955. The film made an instant star of its 24-yearold leading actor, James Dean, but Dean failed to show up on the red carpet that night. Twenty-one days later, on March 30, production began on Dean’s second film, Rebel Without a Cause, and that summer he filmed Giant in Texas. On November 30, 1955, he was killed in a tragic car accident, but his celebrity has, if anything, been enhanced in the 60 years since his death: such is the power of his screen presence and the durability of film itself.
Life, the fourth feature by former photographer Anton Corbijn, is a study of Dean through the eyes and the lens of Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who befriended Dean soon after the completion of East of Eden. At the time, the actor was romantically involved with Italian actress Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi), who was in Hollywood to film The Silver Chalice, the debut of another vital young actor of Dean’s generation, Paul Newman. For Dean, this must have been a terribly anxious time: Eden was completed, but how would it be received? Dean was hoping Nicholas Ray would cast him in Rebel Without a Cause, but he was kept in suspense as to whether he’d been chosen. Meanwhile, he was having difficulty coping with the routine publicity chores deemed essential by studio head Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley), who saw Dean as “absolutely impossible ... extremely unco-operative”.
While existing in this limbo at a turning point of his career, Dean seems to have been happy to hang out with Stock, who was prescient enough to see the actor as representing something very new and exciting. The pair hang out in Los Angeles and later in New York, which is where Stock takes the famous photo of Dean, cigarette clenched between his teeth, walking in Times Square in the rain.
Life (named after the magazine where Stock placed his photo-report on Dean), is a Canadian-German-Australian co-production; the local content includes the screenplay by Luke Davies and the contribution of Joel Edgerton, who plays John Morris, Stock’s employer.
The film wouldn’t work at all if not for the magnetic presence of Dane DeHaan, who not only looks very much like Dean but also captures the young actor’s magnetism, awkwardness and shy nonconformity.
As an insight into these crucial weeks in Dean’s life, the film is of enormous interest, and buffs will be impressed by the skilful lookalike casting of such characters as Kazan and Ray, Wood and Julie Harris (Dean’s East of Eden costar), and Eartha Kitt.
But mainly the film explores an unusual friendship between an insecure young actor and the man who will immortalise him in some of the most outstanding candid photographs ever taken of a celebrity.
Dane DeHaan and Alessandra Mastronardi as James Dean and Pier Angeli in Life
Jason Clarke as Rob Hall in Everest