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The Asgard Project

DirectorAlastair Lee
Producer Posing Productions
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateSunday, 13 December 2009
Rating 4 out of 5

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It's an old conundrum. To make a great expedition film takes the same kind of preparation and planning and even more money than the climb itself. The trouble is, what if the expedition doesn't come off? You're left with hours of beautiful footage, won in the teeth of freezing temperatures and hardship, that no one wants to watch. It's why producers prefer to make historial reenactments rather risk it all on the unknown.

There must have been some anxious moments on this project for director Alastair Lee and executive producer Leo Houlding. With a lot of their own cash sunk in a complex and expensive enterprise, the weather deteriorating as the Arctic summer turned to winter, and their plans in some disarray, tempers might have frayed.

But Houlding, on the evidence of The Asgard Project, lives his life in a determined mood of optimism. He may be cold, he may wake up grumpy, but give him a cup of java and point a camera at him, and he's a real trooper. Moments before a skyhook blows and he takes a nasty fall high on Asgard, he's seen mid pitch chattering optimistically to a handheld camera. In that regard, this is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall documentary.

To give the film some momentum, Lee shot Houlding preparing for Asgard with climbing partner Carlos Suarez, speed climbing and Base-jumping at Riglos, and Sean 'Stanley' Leary, free climbing in Yosemite. There's also a thrilling scene at Brento where Leo practises wingsuit flying with the world's greatest wingsuit designer Robbie Pecnik.

These preambles feel a little artificial, especially compared to what comes next, and Houlding seems in television professional mode. But by the time they get to Baffin, the whole adventure feels a lot more convincing. The team hires a DC3 from which they toss their supplies and themselves, all attached to parachutes for one of the more outlandish arrivals at base camp.

Inevitably, the only parachute that doesn't open is the one supporting their hardware and portaledges. It almost hurts looking at racks of camming devices bent beyond repair. This necessitates some rather frantic improvisation. Worse, stonefall threatens the approaches to Asgard's ramparts, although there is no mention of the Belgian team who have snaffled their original objective.

This section of the film is the weakest, mostly because the action became confusing. I was never sure quite what was going on. Lee keeps things pacy, and has some clever visual tricks to advance the story, but it doesn't always come off.

Once the climbers have decided to free an aid route on Asgard's north face, however, the story settles down, and although it's sometimes confusing telling who is where and why, the hardship, grind and courage involved in climbing a wall that only gets sunshine for an hour out of twenty-four shines out.

As the weather curdles, and hopes fade, the emotional engagement with the climbers deepens. Leary wigs out, swearing loudly at the rock, but you understand why. Houlding looks exhausted but keeps things moving forward. It would have been nice to see more of Jason Pickles, on the wall but not profiled in the film's earlier section, not being one of the stars. Except his good humour and resilience seemed a real boon and that's what we want to watch – character under pressure.

Footage of the northern lights flickering behind Asgard the night before their summit climb was mesmerising, and showed another aspect of Lee's film-making that I found myself admiring. Mountains are grand places to be, whether or not you're watching a climber inch up them. The sheer, physical beauty of them emerges from this film more than most I've seen.

At almost an hour and a half, the film might seem long for a climbing documentary, but the scale and quality of its climax justifies the patient build-up.  The odds of Houlding and Lee pulling off a great climbing expedition film were stacked against them from the start, and circumstances worked against them. Even so, they pulled it out of the fire, and a big, ambitious film is appropriate. It's possible this film may re-emerge as a television documentary. I hope they don't cut it too much. This kind of thing doesn't come along very often.

Asgard trailer

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