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D: Baltasar Kormákur / 121m

Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Martin Henderson, Thomas M. Wright, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Naoko Mori, Elizabeth Debicki

The brainchild of New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Clarke), Adventure Consultants is a company that takes people to the summit of Mount Everest. In April 1996, Rob and his team, led by base camp manager Helen Wilton (Watson), plan to take eight clients to the summit. Among them are Texan climber Beck Weathers (Brolin) and Doug Hansen (Hawkes), a postman seeking to inspire the pupils at an elementary school where he lives, and Jon Krakauer (Kelly), a journalist from Outside magazine that Hall has persuaded to write an article about them in return for a gratis trip. When they arrive at base camp, Hall regales them with the necessary rules and warns them all of the dangers of ascending to a height where their bodies will literally begin to die.

The group make three acclimatisation climbs before starting off for the summit on the morning of May 10. They are joined by a group led by Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) of the rival company Mountain Madness. Together they aid each other in climbing the mountain, making it to each Camp in good time. The camaraderie between the climbers helps them to keep going the further up they climb, but after they leave Camp IV, they begin to encounter problems. Fischer becomes unwell and starts to struggle, while Weathers develops an eyesight problem that causes him to remain on the side of the mountain until the other climbers come back down. As they near the summit, they reach the Balcony and find there are no fixed ropes; and again when they reach the Hillary Step. With time being eaten away by these delays the strain of the climb begins to tell on more and more of the climbers, including Hansen who lags behind everyone else.

The two groups persevere though and the first person to reach the summit – from Fischer’s group – gets there around 1pm. With everyone needing to start back down by 2pm in order to make it back to Camp IV, Hall finds himself ignoring his own rules and helping Hansen reach the summit. Now over an hour late in leaving, and with Hansen getting weaker and weaker due to a lack of oxygen, Hall is faced with an even worse problem: a terrible storm rushing in from the southwest. With the blizzard making the effort to descend even harder, Hall and Hansen make it back to the Hillary Step, while Fischer’s group and the rest of Hall’s group find themselves battling the blizzard and struggling to stay alive. With no help available from the base camp, all anyone can do is hope that the storm abates soon, and gives them all a chance to get back down.

Everest - scene

Based on a true story, and with a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy that’s been collated from various sources, Everest is a disaster movie that highlights the natural beauty of the Himalayas, and the ever-present danger that lies hidden and waiting for the unwary (or even the experienced). It’s an intelligent, cleverly constructed and judiciously maintained tale of unexpected tragedy that is also unexpectedly moving. And thanks to the decision to film as much of the movie on location as possible, it allows the viewer to become embroiled in the effort to reach the summit and then to stay alive against the odds.

Much will be made of Everest‘s stunning vistas and gasp-inducing scenery, and while this is entirely appropriate, they’re still the backdrop for a tragic endeavour that was doomed from the moment that the groups found that there were no fixed ropes in two sections where they were needed. With the climb having gone so well up til then, this presentiment of doom adds a chill to events that augments the sub-zero temperatures, and makes the rest of the movie dreadful and fascinating to watch at the same time.

As the resulting tragedy unfolds, it becomes an agonising experience as the various climbers we’ve come to know and empathise with, face terrible hardships brought on by the brutal weather, and find the limits of their endurance pushed beyond measure. The inclusion of Hall’s partner, Jan (Knightley), and Beck’s wife, Peach (Wright), both removed from the action but still linked to their men by tremendous love and commitment, allows the movie to show how the events on Everest had a wider consequence. Jan is pregnant with hers and Rob’s first child, while Peach moves heaven and earth to ensure her husband has a chance of returning home. Their fears and concerns add an extra layer of tragic drama to proceedings, and in the capable hands of Knightley and Wright, both women show fear, strength, determination and sadness with admirable clarity. And they’re matched by Watson, who puts in yet another faultless performance.

Amongst the men, Clarke plays Hall as an altruistic, methodical leader whose love of climbing defines him the most. When Hall decides to help Hansen reach the summit, his thoughts are writ clearly on his face: it’s the wrong decision, and Clarke shows Hall’s understanding of this with such resignation that it heightens the impending tragedy, and makes their twin fates all the more affecting. Hawkes gives another low-key yet determined performance as the most unlikely climber in the group, while Brolin’s cocky, bullish attitude soon reveals a deeper layer of insecurity that Weathers would rather keep hidden. Gyllenhaal and Worthington have minor roles in comparison and we don’t get to know their characters as well, but with so many to keep track of, it would be unfair for the script to try and focus on too many at one time.

Making his most complete and effective movie to date, Kormákur ratchets up the tension as the storm hits and survival becomes everything. But he never loses sight of the human will to overcome and conquer adversity, and as the treacherous descent is begun, most viewers are likely to have at least one character they’ll want to see reach Camp IV. Whether they do or not is another matter, and it would be fair to say that billing is no guarantee of survival, but again Kormákur keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat as to just who will make it and who won’t, and each death carries with it its own devastating emotional “punch”.

The production is handsomely mounted and is supported by Salvatore Totino’s superb photography, Dario Marianelli’s subtle, non-intrusive score, and Mick Audsley’s fine-tuned editing. With only a few dodgy green screen shots to break the illusion, and some confusion as to what’s happening to whom once the blizzard hits, Everest remains a compelling, gripping account of an unfortunate, avoidable tragedy.

Rating: 8/10 – whatever your views on the mistakes made on May 10 1996, there’s no doubting the courage shown by all those on the mountain that day, and Everest is a tribute to all those who perished, and the survivors as well; with an emotional core that steals up on the viewer, it’s a movie that reaffirms the risks of climbing “the most dangerous place on Earth”, and the sense of profound achievement that it provides.