Beyond the Edge: Toronto Review

Beyond the Edge - P - 2013
Solid history lesson isn't as visually splendid as expected.

Leanne Pooley reenacts Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic ascent of Mount Everest.

An in-depth look at the first Mount Everest ascent on the 60th anniversary of the event, Leanne Pooley's Beyond the Edge works from copious interviews, a trove of photos and film footage, and a reenactment of the climb whose lead actor is a remarkable stand-in for Edmund Hillary. It will be most attention-getting for its use of 3D; while this is not one of those docs (like Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams) capable of inspiring 3D-haters to temporarily stop bashing the format, the gimmick will surely help commercial prospects for a film that is aesthetically related to, but much more thorough than, the fare shown in science and natural history museums nationwide.

Avoiding talking heads altogether but relying heavily on audio interviews both original and vintage, the film offers ample background on the 1953 climb, which, of course, was not a two-person operation. Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were just two in a team of 13 Westerners and 30 sherpas (not to mention over 300 porters carrying gear) sponsored by Great Britain. As a New Zealander, Hillary had little hope of being picked to be the one making the final leg of this mission for the first time, but throughout the arduous mission he attempted to prove his merit to expedition leader John Hunt.

Pooley uses actors (whose wardrobe and gear is particularly convincing) in scenes shot in New Zealand's Southern Alps to recreate the expedition, weaving in vintage color footage shot by the climbers. The matchup works well, and viewers may sometimes find themselves not sure (and not caring) whether a long shot is original or staged. Though the narrative is mostly one of endurance as opposed to action, we do see a Hollywood-ready moment or two, as when Hillary tries to leap a deep crevasse and fails, his certain-death fall only stopped by Norgay, who was tied to him and digs his axe into ice just in time.

That's an exception, though. The script goes into enough technical detail that it threatens to tire viewers who lack a healthy interest in vicariously living not just the final ascent but the atmosphere of uncertainty, fatigue, and fear that preceded it.

Throughout, newly shot footage of icy peaks and steep drops does the job without being as spectacular as 2D footage seen in some similarly themed movies. The dimming effect of stereoscopic glasses is one problem; lack of picture density is another. Though the storytelling ably puts us in the crampons of the men who first achieved this seemingly impossible goal, the photography isn't equally transportive.

Production Company: General Film Corporation

Cast: Chad Moffitt, Sonam Sherpa

Director-Screenwriter: Leanne Pooley

Producer: Matthew Metcalfe

Director of photography: Richard Bluck

Production designer: Grant Major

Music: David Long

Costume designer: Barbara Darragh

Editor: Tim Woodhouse

Sales: Altitude Film Sales

No rating, 90 minutes