Easily compared to Free Solo, The Alpinist is a worthy companion of a cold adventure – one to watch in the warm though.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons with the stunning documentary Free Solo as The Alpinist unfolds. The former told the story of climber Alex Honnold, whose death-defying, safety net-free exploits were documented superbly, earning an Oscar win and an IMAX upgrade as word of mouth of the film grew.
Ironically, even though it arrives a few years after Free Solo, work on documentary The Alpinist appeared to start beforehand, and the thought that this may be a crossover film as such is hardly dissipated when Alex Honnold becomes an on-screen interviewee.
This time though, the focus is on a more elusive subject. Marc-André Leclerc was in his early 20s when he quietly built a reputation for incredible solo climbs. Furthermore, Leclerc was tackling – as the title of the documentary suggests – the kind of mountains with no shortage of snow and terrible weather conditions involved.
Directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen make themselves part of the story they tell, because the narrative here isn’t just Leclerc’s climbing feats – the majority of which he does solo, with no interest in recording – but also trying to actually capture him to some degree. At one stage in the film, Leclerc – a bright, polite, but relatively reluctant subject – simply disappears for a period of time, and we’re left with the directors wondering just where their film is going.
What that quietly contributes to though is a little bit of a sense that something must be going on. Is this a straight telling of a tale, or are there sleights of hand at work in the way they’re putting across what at heart is simply a staggering story? It perhaps goes without saying that it’s best to approach a film like this completely cold, and I confess I knew nothing of Leclerc before I watched it. Appreciating I have just one perspective on this, I do suspect that may be the best way.
Either way, there’s a moment in the midst of the documentary that must have the IMAX team on the phone. A quite heart-stopping climb, where it’s as boggling as much how he did it as how it was recorded. Even when it’s at its most conventional – which is quite often – there’s something in The Alpinist’s locker that arrests you just around the corner.
Inevitably this makes a fine companion piece to Free Solo too, although they clearly diverge. I can but recommend you watch it in the warm with your feet firmly on the ground though.
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