Edge of Yesterday, by Williamson Balliet
Between 1922 and 1952, thirteen men perished in attempts to summit Mt. Everest, but nations continued to answer the siren song beckoning them to scale the impossible, to look down upon the world in a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Beyond the Edge attempts to capture the grandiosity and peril of the eventual summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay of the ninth British expedition. The unlikely pair cheated death on multiple occasions, and yet, oddly enough, it seems to be director Leanne Pooley who bit off a bit more than she could chew.
The film mixes archival photographs and footage with expert narration and reenactments in its exploration of the ascent. But in doing so, it becomes muddled and disjointed. Its scope is limited despite often hyperbolic speech about the historical significance of the climb. The reenactments themselves serve little narrative function and are strangely captured chiefly in medium and close shots, thus diminishing the potential for danger and demystifying the scale of the mountain itself. They also have a similar quality to those one would find in a History Channel special, possessing little directorial flair and severely lacking in depth. Even the narration occasionally hints at fascinating causes for individuals like expedition leader John Hunt and Edmund Hillary to wish to embark on such a dangerous and momentous undertaking, but nary a personality is to be found in the dramatizations. They serve the most basic function filmmaking can possess with such a story: delivering basic factual information, but doing so with a neutered detachment.
The story of the ascension itself remains quite fascinating. Edmund Hillary was a simple beekeeper perhaps motivated by feelings of inadequacy and Tenzing Norgay seemed to possess more mountaineering experience than any other member of the outfit. It was certainly a strange pairing for a British expedition, with Hillary hailing from New Zealand and Norgay from Nepal, and to have this pair reach the top is even more enthralling. They were both responsible for saving the lives of one another during the journey, but their relationship is not well explored and their lives given only the most cursory investigation. Pooley offers only enough to raise further questions about its subjects. For a film about Earth’s highest mountain, the study is uncharacteristically myopic.
However, the final sequences take a much-needed break from the Pooley’s otherwise dispassionate approach. As Hillary and Norgay finally crest the summit, we are given an absolutely stunning display of scale. The shots of the south summit embody the majesty that this film should more readily expose. And as we see actual footage of the duo emerging from the unknown to rejoin their party below, we are privy to an actual glimpse of humanity. Their exuberance in this moment would be almost impossible to replicate and it is joyous to take part in their glory as the other members of the team exalt them in a manner befitting their triumph.
Glory and ebullience aside, these final moments fail to make up for the earlier precedent of vapidity and aridity. And while explanations of the oxygen systems they use or the aluminum ladders utilized in the crossing of crevices may hold some interests for those already fascinated in climbing, they do little to engross a laymen such as myself, especially when confined to a film lacking in inventiveness and wrought with dehumanized characterizations. And in perhaps its biggest fault this movie never capitalizes on the tension and danger of the climb itself. Problems are solved almost as quickly as they are presented, never allowing for a sense of dread to linger with its audience. In the end, Beyond the Edge does little more than what can be found simply studying the event itself, never fully inviting us to indulge in the literally breathtaking feat of mounting the insurmountable.