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Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Martin Henderson, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright, Elizabeth Debecki and Sam Worthington.
Writers: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.

Rating: 4/5

Talent both above- and below-the-line nary put a foot wrong scaling Everest, a thunderous, gruelling account of the fatal 1996 commercial climb of the world’s most unforgiving summit.

Director Baltasar Kormákur’s vast, encompassing vision thematically broaches the existential drive that consumes extreme climbers, questioning both the brusque heroism and innate fatalism of those that attempt to conquer such harsh climes.

But the humanistic drama peaks in its pure representation of that age-old, man-vs-nature battle; flawlessly crafted scenes of storm surges and ice shifts, set against the epic real-world scale of the Himalayan landscape, instantly miniaturise the protagonists and put into perspective, both physically and metaphorically, the insurmountable task of surviving should Mother Nature dictate otherwise.

The central figure is Rob Hall (a very fine Jason Clarke), a New Zealander whose company, Adventure Consultants, is on the verge of booming as tourism interest in Everest’s peak soars. His competition is American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a kind of mountaineering surfer-dude, though they share a respectful, friendly bond as two souls in the thrall of the region and its majesty. Hall’s team includes climbers Harold (Martin Henderson, making an all-too-rare big-screen appearance) and Guy (Sam Worthington) and base-camp staffers Helen (Emily Watson, mastering a very broad Kiwi accent) and Dr McKenzie (Elizabeth Debicki).

On the lengthy journey into the Nepalese range that begins in Kathmandu and takes in the remote outposts of Lukla, Namche Bazaar and the Thangboche Monastery, the international cast of ‘who’ll make it out?’ characters are deftly sketched; brash Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), regular guy Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), Japanese adventuress Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose bestselling first-person account ‘Into Thin Air’ was one of several written by the survivors (though none are credited as source material by the production). Each have a moment or two of screen time to reveal their weaknesses and motivations, providing just enough insight into who they are and why they are there for the audience to feel engaged when the high-altitude horrors begin. (No such dimension is afforded the local population, who are fleetingly represented and get a mere handful of lines; for their side of a similar story, check out Jennifer Peedom’s terrific doco Sherpa, currently touring the festival circuit).

The set-up structure is Disaster Movie 101, barely diverting from the Irwin Allen template of the mid 1970s and employed right up until this years’ San Andreas. However, the based-in-fact origins and naturalness with which the Oscar-pedigree writing team and skilled Icelandic auteur Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, 2000; 2 Guns, 2013) work the tropes keep it real enough. The story finds its heart in the long-distance phone call relationship between Hall and his pregnant wife Jan (a weepy Keira Knightley); not so succinctly realised are some kitschy ‘back home’ scenes involving Robin Wright as Beck’s estranged spouse and her efforts to procure a helicopter for her husband’s medical care (“I want the number for the American embassy in Nepal. That’s right, NEPAL!”)

The films strongest suit is its unflinching depiction of the rigour and grandeur of the setting. Whether on location in Nepal (or it’s more attainable stand-in, Italy) or on the soundstages at Cinecitta or Pinewood, cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Any Given Sunday, 1999; The Da Vinci Code, 2006) and the production’s design and effects units have compellingly recreated the terrifying reality of life-and-death on a mountainside, 30,000 feet high. Melded with the emotional and physical struggle depicted by a committed cast under the assured guidance of a fine filmmaker, Everest emerges as both a touching tribute to lost lives and an old fashion slice of white-knuckle adventure.

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