Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Photo: Film Four Ltd

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Produced by: John Simithson.
Based on the book by Joe Simpson.
Director of Photography: Mike Eley.
Edited by: Justine Wright.
Music by: Alex Heffes.
Released by: IFC.
Country of Origin: UK. 106 min. Not Rated.
With: Brendan Mackey & Nicholas Aaron.
DVD Features: Making Of featurette “Return to Siula Grande”. “What Happened Next”. Interviews with Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.

Soon after British mountain climber Joe Simpson and his partner Simon Yates reach the summit of the 21,000 feet Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes and begin their descent, Simpson slips, badly shatters his leg, and expects to be left behind. Instead, Yates decides to lower Simpson with climber’s rope down the mountain, and in his haste to beat an impending blizzard, he, unknowingly, lowers his injured partner over a cliff. With three hundred feet of rope between them and strong winds howling, the climbers find themselves incommunicado and at a deadly impasse. This innovative and riveting documentary recounts this disastrous 1985 descent. With a simple crosscutting technique blending interviews of the climbers and dramatic reenactments, the film’s tension is relentless, and just bearable.

The majority of the film - which takes its title from Simpson’s prolonged tête-à-tête with death, and the meditations it provokes - follows Simpson’s plunge into a dark crevasse and its effects on his body and spirit. Unraveling this astonishing story of survival, director Kevin Macdonald deftly employs voiceover and tames that unruly monster, the dramatic reenactment, which is smoothly integrated into the account. One of his achievements is his willingness to let silence tell the story as much as any of the interviews, depictions, or musical interludes. And the pacing of the film is flawless, the contours as varied as a mountainside: at the very moment when Simpson’s survival is simultaneously most assured and most threatened, a terrible pop song enters his mind and won’t leave. The moment is funny and painful, painful as it demonstrates the damage dehydration and the elements have done to his mind. While the acting in the reenactments (by Brendan Mackey as Simpson and Nicholas Aaron as Yates) seems more physically demanding than emotionally or psychologically nuanced, nonetheless the film is at once a breathtaking achievement and an unsentimental, life-affirming mini-saga that will fascinate anyone with a pulse. Joel Whitney, screenwriter/poet, teaches at Fordham University
January 22, 2004

DVD Extras: The best thing about the interviews is that they are in no way sugarcoated or trite. Simpson reveals more in “Return to Siula Grande” than the fact it was traumatizing to return, such as the longevity of making the film and the distress in recreating his plight. Yates is similarly candid. We get the impression, at one point directly from Yates, that the climbers aren’t exactly friends. Simpson explains he wrote the best-selling novel that the film was based on to combat the harsh criticism Yates faced from the climbing community for his actions. All interviews, however, include similar and even some of the same footage, which makes watching them all somewhat repetitive. Lisette Johnson
July 5, 2004



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