I met the documentary filmmaker of Beyond the Edge when she guest-lectured a filmmaking class I took at university. Leanne Pooley’s (The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, 25 April) lecture was specifically aimed at the difference between drama and documentary filmmaking – and that’s to say that there really isn’t a difference at all; they both require the same narrative construction. They’re both telling a story, and so both broadly follow the same storytelling convention and structure.
It made sense to me.
So, it came as no surprise when I found Beyond the Edge effortlessly entertaining and suspenseful. It’s a solid, well-crafted story.
Beyond the Edge tells the tale of the successful 1953 expedition to summit mount Everest for the first time. The documentary follows the British-led expedition with a degree of minutia, focusing specifically on New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Spoiler – they’re the first people in history to make it to the peak.
Growing up in New Zealand, there’s been a fair amount of time given to detailing Hillary’s climb. I’m sure most Kiwi kids like myself, saw a documentary or two about his achievements at school. And after all, he features on the five-dollar bill.
But when it comes to the Everest expedition, Beyond the Edge is the best account that I’ve seen. The film is a combination of archival footage, reenactments filmed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and some gorgeous landscape footage shot for the film on Everest itself – in 3D.
(Unfortunately, that’s not how I saw it. Instead, I watched it on my laptop huddled in a fort of blankets and pillows – which I still recommend.)
And as far as reenactments go, it’s spot on. One of the great triumphs of the movie is how consistently seamless the new footage is integrated with the archival. This was absolutely helped by Chad Moffitt being perfectly cast as a dead-ringer for Hillary. Sonam Sherpa does a good job as Norgay, but then again, I didn’t grow up studying Norgay’s immortalized features every time I got pocket money.
But even when the new footage is obvious, it’s never a weakness. Everest’s stand-in, Aoraki (Mount Cook), also carries its weight in obscuring the line between real and re-enacted. This is no doubt helped by the talent behind the camera.
Accompanying the footage is audio compiled from numerous interviews with Hillary himself, as well as other members of the expedition, their children, and those relevant to adding perspective. The narration provides a pretty detailed insight. It makes for an engaging and focused telling of the climb. It feels very authentic, without overt sensationalizing, making the suspense feel all the more real.
Unfortunately, the movie’s ultimate limitation is its commitment to the format; first and secondhand accounts of the expedition keep the content focused on the who and what. The documentary doubles down on the details. It doesn’t question the ‘why.’
There isn’t much greater contextualization of the expedition itself. The movie charts little of the background behind the expedition, or the politics and history of summit attempts, and I found myself craving that extra nuance. It does touch on some politics briefly, mostly early on, but only revisiting such themes intermittently. For the most part, Beyond the Edge depicts the climb with a singular focus. There’s little exploration into the expedition being one of the last, grasping efforts of a struggling, post-war, British Empire.
What the documentary does display is the determination and mettle of the climbers, and that, in itself, makes for a great story. The archival footage is compelling in its own right, made even more so by how well the film is made. It’s engrossing until the end.