Beautifully photographed and insightfully narrated, Beyond The Edge is a worthy chronicle of a New Zealand beekeeper’s quest to conquer the tallest mountain on earth.
Beelay by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sixty-one years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historical summiting of Everest, the Earth’s highest mountain continues to symbolise mans subservience to nature. Since Clinton Thomas Dent’s tentative assertion that Everest was conquerable in 1885, the summit of the 29,029ft mountain has only been reached around 5,700 times. Chronicling the inspirational story of a humble beekeeper from Auckland, Beyond The Edge utilises the bells and whistles of modern filmmaking to effectively illustrate the sheer audacity of climbing Everest in the early ’50s – and to some extent, to this day.
On 29th May, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed as having reached the summit of Mount Everest. Both climbers were members of the British Everest Expedition comprising of over 400 people led by Colonel John Hunt. Following the expedition from their initial rendezvous in Kathmandu, the film follows the team across the Khumbu Icefall to the final ascent to the summit from the South Col.
Combining archival audio, recent interviews, stock footage and reenactments, Beyond The Edge is a consummately crafted documentary. It’s a testament to the skilled filmmakers that it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether you’re watching the real thing or expertly staged climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Largely uninterested in Hillary’s life before or after Everest, the film analyses each step of the arduous ascent in painstaking detail. While many may be familiar with certain aspects of the historic climb, director Leanne Pooley’s film explores the minutiae of the death defying ascent. From the posturing and jostling for a spot on the ‘summit team’, to the ‘laddering’ of seemingly impassable crevasses on the glacier at the foot of Everest, the Khumbu Icefall. The insight into the mental and physical fitness required to survive on Everest at this time is inspirational and humbling.
Eschewing the tried and trusted ‘talking heads’ approach, the documentary features an impressive array of firsthand accounts from members of the Everest Expedition of ‘53, including archival accounts from Hillary. Peter Hillary and Norbu Norgay also feature, and it is through these recollections of their famous fathers that the film reveals its biggest weakness – emotion. We never see the proud smiling faces of Peter or Norbu, we never see the melancholy in Hillary’s face that you sense as he recollects the experience. Granted, it would have been impossible for the filmmakers to interview the late Hillary – who died in 2008 – but I desperately wanted to see the emotion of at least some of the narrators on-screen. This lack of emotion doesn’t detract from the indisputable enormity of the achievement, but it prevents the audience from truly connecting, as if there is an invisible barrier erected through Pooley’s approach that never really allows the film to resonate to a significant degree. The reverential and stoic approach creates a very accurate and insightful account, but ultimately feels impersonal and procedural. It feels more like a film that you would expect to see in the Edmund Hillary museum than your local theatre.
Beyond The Edge is an important documentary because it expertly tells a story that simply had to be told. The transcendence and magnificence of Hillary and Norgay’s assault on the summit is perfectly captured. It’s evident from start to finish that this is a film made with the love and conviction of a crew who were invested in the continuance of Hillary’s legacy. Director Leanne Pooley effectively harnesses the combined talents of top notch photography, visual effects, acting and editing to create a slick and well researched documentary. The decision to exclude talking heads from the audience affects the impact of the film on an emotional level, taking some of the humanity out of a very personal and hugely heroic story.
Beyond the Edge is released on 23rd May 2014 in the UK