Summit Fever


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Michel Biel in Summit Fever
"Subtitles identify the routes which the climbers take on each occasion, and great attention is paid to accuracy, so climbers in the audience will have a lot to engage with." | Photo: Signature Entertainment

A few years ago there was a slew of great climbing documentaries making use of new technologies like GoPros and drones to show us aspects of mountaineering which had never been captured on screen before. This year has seen the focus shift to fiction. Again, there’s some good work out there, but the new films have quite a lot in common, and at first Julian Gilbey’s contribution seems to be ticking all the boxes. The protagonist is young and talented and was once highly ambitious but has taken a break from climbing following the death of a loved one (in this case a sister). Pressure from friends leads him to return, but he’s not sure he’s ready. An early accident reminds us what’s at stake. A storm brews.

We’ve seen all this before, but it doesn’t fit together in the usual way – it’s the same climb, if you like, but Gilbey finds his own route. The story about the sister is more complicated than expected and sends a different message. Michael (Freddie Thorp) has doubts which remain with him throughout the film, and at one point backs down from a climb when the situation becomes too dangerous. And this isn’t just another story about taking on a single ascent in rough weather. There are several mountains for Michael to conquer, which in turn leads into a story about the compulsion which drives climbers and how it often comes to dominate their lives, for good or ill.

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Then there are the mountains. There no anonymous peaks here – instead the film features the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Mont Blanc, all lovingly observed by a director who has climbed them himself. Subtitles identify the routes which the climbers take on each occasion, and great attention is paid to accuracy, so climbers in the audience will have a lot to engage with. Whilst Thorp makes an engaging lead actor, he is also worth watching for his climbing ability, honed over a couple of years prior to filming – that’s really him ascending the Matterhorn and taking on several other major challenges. Ryan Phillippe, who plays one of the international group of climbers and skiers with whom he finds himself keeping company, also does a lot of his own work. They’re backed up by some of the world’s most accomplished climbers serving as body doubles.

Alongside the climbing, we get skiing scenes on the Chamonix glacier, as Michael falls for a friend’s ex-girlfriend, Isabelle (Mathilde Warnier). Her body double is Winter Olympics double gold medallist Adèle Milloz, who tragically died by falling from Mont Blanc shortly after the film was completed. Warnier makes her a spirited character who repeatedly challenges Michael and also provides an insight into what it’s like to stay behind and wait whilst a loved one engages in such a perilous pursuit. Her proficiency on the slopes ensures that she isn’t consigned to the physically useless girlfriend category, with Michael recognising that she far outclasses him there.

The spectre of death is everywhere in a film which establishes early on just how hazardous mountaineering can be, and it doesn’t just come from falls. Gilbey quickly establishes that there are several different ways one can be killed or badly injured in this scenario. Though he doesn’t go in for gore, he builds tension in such a way that some of these scenes feel really brutal. Meanwhile, the protagonists reassure one another that it won’t happen to them. They’re not free climbers, points out Michael’s best friend, Jean-Pierre (Michel Biel). They don’t take stupid risks like that. His early decision to pressure Michael into climbing as soon as he arrives, however – after a 500 mile drive – is an indication of the fact that he, and the others, are not as responsible as they imagine, and will casually take a different set of risks.

Some of the other climbers we meet are taking risks for money or fame, to please their sponsors or fans, revealing a darker side to the sport. It is vital, Gilbey told me, not to start believing in one’s own myth. Indeed, the psychology of the sport comes to the fore in haunting climactic scenes which see Michael having to face the limits of his and others’ abilities and acknowledge that mountains can kill, as it were, on a whim. Changes in light and colour tone help to underscore the stylistic shift which gives these scenes their power. Mention should also be made of Steven Parker’s sound design, which is impressive throughout, especially when used to highlight the difference between watching and being there.

In the end, that’s what this film comes down to. Yes, some of the social scenes are a bit cheesy – they’re aimed at a young audience, however, so it’s a bit disingenuous for older critics to look down on the characters for age-appropriate unsophisticated behaviour – and the downside of the multiple peaks approach is that it runs a bit longer than it really should. On the other hand, it really does capture the experience of being in such an environment, and those who have done it themselves, or who feel that calling, will find that it resonates strongly with them. This makes its bold choice of ending all the more potent. The beautiful scenery will please most viewers, but it’s the compulsion it explores which gives it meaning.

Signature Entertainment presents Summit Fever on digital platforms on 17 October

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2022
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Summit Fever packshot
A young man gets more than he bargained for on a climbing expedition in the French Alps.
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Director: Julian Gilbey

Writer: Julian Gilbey

Starring: Freddie Thorp, Mathilde Warnier, Michel Biel, Ryan Phillippe, Hannah New

Year: 2022

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US


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