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Cinema reviews: Everest & A Walk in the Woods

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4 stars
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur heads for the highest peak on Earth for a gripping drama based on true events which cast a deathly shadow over the mountaineering community in 1996.

Penned by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, award-winning scribes of Gladiator and Slumdog Millionaire, Everest is a slickly orchestrated recreation of an ill-fated ascent to 29,029ft above sea level, where altitude sickness silently stalks the most experienced climbers.

From this literally breathtaking vantage point, one wrong movement or the slightest change in Mother Nature’s volatile temperament can be fatal.

The air is too thin for helicopter rescue, so all that separates expeditions from an icy grave is the eternal flame of the human spirit, which compels men and women to perform superhuman feats of strength and endurance.

Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lead rival expeditions, racing against one another and the elements to ensure their clients are on top of the world.

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Unlike his rival, Rob takes a fastidious, cautious approach to each ascent with his company, Adventure Consultants, promising his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), that he will return soon for the imminent birth of their daughter.

His base-camp team includes mother hen Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), medic Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki) and fellow guide Andy Harris (Martin Henderson).

Clients on Hall’s ill-fated May 1996 expedition include respected journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who is attempting to become only the second Japanese woman to reach the summits of the highest mountains on all seven continents.

As Rob and Scott’s teams approach the summit, a fierce storm rumbles nearby, threatening to trap the climbers and guides on the rock face.

“There is competition between every person and this mountain. The last word always belongs to the mountain,” pointedly observes one of the guides.

Everest doesn’t quite scale the dizzy emotional heights to which it aspires and it’s not always easy to distinguish characters when tragedy strikes in the eye of a storm, but there is no escaping the nerve-racking suspense that holds us in a vice-like grip.

Occasionally, performances are lost to the roar of the
sub-zero wind, but Watson certainly wrings out tears that remain frozen for other cast members.

Kormakur’s decision to shoot his picture in 3D and IMAX 3D adds a vertiginous, stomach-churning extra dimension to this highwire fight for survival.

We experience the relentless, sickening pull of gravity as
the camera swoops above and below the characters as they clamber over rickety ladders that traverse gaping crevasses on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

These brave souls might be instructed to keep their heads up, but we have no choice but to stare at the jagged wall of rock and ice that stretches down towards oblivion.

Don’t be afraid to hold on white-knuckle tight to the armrest of your seat.


Robert Redford, left, and Nick Nolte take a trip in A Walk in the Woods
Robert Redford, left, and Nick Nolte take a trip in A Walk in the Woods

4 stars
For more than 30 years, Iowa-born journalist Bill Bryson has popularised the art of travel writing.

He has lived on this side of the Atlantic for the majority of that time and his affectionate tour of the British Isles, documented in the 1995 book Notes From a Small Island, painted a rich and frequently hilarious portrait of a proud, stoic and self-effacing nation, which embraces the present and past.

Bryson returned to America for several years after the book’s publication and, during this period, he hiked the physically demanding Appalachian Trail with good friend Stephen Katz, which provided the inspiration for the book A Walk in the Woods.

Ken Kwapis’s film version retains the writer’s wry sense of humour and episodic structure, and provides Nick Nolte with a peach of a part as the crotchety sidekick, who wheezes and puffs in Bryson’s shadow as they wander the 2,200 miles separating Georgia and Maine.

Imagine two ill-prepared, grouchy old men undertaking the same physical exertions as Reese Witherspoon in the Oscar-nominated biographical drama Wild and you’ll be well prepared for this hugely entertaining trip through the sprawling American outdoors.

Robert Redford lends his dashing good looks to the lead role of family man Bryson, who hopes to get himself out of a rut by trekking the Appalachian Trail.

“Seriously, Bill, even for you it’s ridiculous,” despairs his wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson).

Unexpectedly, old travelling companion Katz (Nick Nolte) agrees to accompany Bill and the two men – who got on each other’s nerves on an earlier expedition – stuff their backpacks to capacity for the obstacles ahead.

The quest begins in the gentle sunshine of April and Katz entertains Bill with his modest requirements for a bed partner (“a heartbeat and a full set of limbs”) and a confession about his struggles with sobriety.

“There’s this hole in my life where drinking used to be,” he laments.

When Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen), the proprietor of a motel, flirts with Bill during the walk, Katz encourages an extramarital dalliance, but the writer remains faithful to Catherine.

“One woman all these years? That can’t be good for you,” growls Katz.

A Walk in the Woods rests on the sturdy shoulders of Redford and Nolte and they are a delicious double act, relishing the barbs in Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman’s surefooted script.

Thompson sparkles in her limited screen time and there is a vivid supporting performance from Kristen Schaal as a chatterbox hiker on the trail, who drives the two men to distraction.

Kwapis savours the comical set-pieces, including Katz’s laundromat seduction of a lady whose smalls are snagged in one of the washing machines. Hearty guffaws are nicely balanced with moments of introspection and regret, making us wish this wonderful walk in the woods lasted longer than 104 minutes.