The Alpinist review – nerve-shredding climbing doc barely holds on to its subject

A portrait of Marc-André Leclerc, a sweet but audacious and fearless solo climber whom the film-makers can’t always get close to

This documentary about Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc, chockful of nerve-shredding footage, is most certainly not a film for anyone who gets sympathetic vertigo from watching people near precipices. Presumably it was shot by drones as much of it features Lerclerc literally hanging by his fingernails off mountains while soloing – in other words, climbing without a partner, or ropes, or pretty much any safety device at all. As extreme sports go, it’s about as extreme as you can get.

Leclerc is by no means the only alpinist who takes big risks but, as other, older climbers and peers testify here, he is particularly audacious, casually setting records and ascending sheer faces in conditions that would scare off most experienced climbers. But it’s not just his bravery, or fearlessness, that makes him interesting. Narrating and appearing on camera themselves, film-makers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen are both awed and frustrated by the purity of Leclerc’s dedication. He lets them film him up to a point, and then buggers off without so much as a text message so he can climb another mountain without anyone watching; apparently because that’s the truest, most authentic kind of climbing.

That said, Leclerc is not exactly a recluse, and even has a girlfriend, Brette Harrington. she is also a climber and lives with him on-and-off in makeshift shelters in tents, fields and even a stairwell for a while. The two come across as sweet, hippy-dippy kids who in slightly different circumstances could have turned into druggie dropouts – or even eccentrics devoted to the wilderness with the same zeal as Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell or Chris McCandless, the loner whose fate inspired the book and film Into the Wild. Leclerc story goes in a slightly different, somewhat unexpected direction. The film-makers’ enthusiasm for his clarity of purpose is all well and good, but it does leave the film prone to hyperbole, and perhaps a more measured, sideways look at the weird dropout culture around climbing would have been more interesting.

• The Alpinist is released on 24 September in cinemas.


Contributor

Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Climbing Blind review – elevating portrait of a higher love
This captivating documentary focuses on the extraordinary bond between blind climber Jesse Dufton and his wife and climbing partner Molly Thompson

Cath Clarke

18, Mar, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
On thin ice: how The Alpinist captured the terrifying climbs of Marc-André Leclerc
Climbing solo without ropes, the Canadian adventurer would scale stratospheric walls of ice that could crack and fall with one wrong move. We meet the makers of a gripping, heartbreaking new film

Sam Wollaston

23, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Alpinist review – intriguing insight into a maverick climber
The obsessive drive of the Canadian solo mountaineer Marc-André Leclerc is captured in this cliff-hanging documentary

Wendy Ide

26, Sep, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Mountain review – a truly amazing view from the top
The footage is spectacular in this Willem Dafoe-narrated documentary about what mountains mean to us and why we climb them

Peter Bradshaw

14, Dec, 2017 @10:43 AM

Article image
Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes review – portrait of a mountain man
This loving documentary charting the polymath mountaineer’s life, including a recent health crisis, offers few insights into wider issues

Leslie Felperin

09, May, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Meru: the documentary that best captures 'the PTSD' of high-level climbing
The documentary about the struggle to conquer the Shark’s Fin on the northern India peak was long in the making – but offers a rare glimpse of the psychological torment of climbers insistent on pushing themselves to their physical limit

Caty Enders

26, Aug, 2015 @5:15 PM

Article image
Sherpa review – high-altitude labour-relations struggle on Everest
A gripping account of changing attitudes among Sherpa climbers on the world’s highest peak in the wake of the 2014 disaster

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

20, Dec, 2015 @7:59 AM

Article image
Free Solo star Alex Honnold falls off a mountain: Keith Ladzinski's best photo
‘Alex was on vacation in Greece – but even on vacation, he still climbs. Fortunately, unlike in the film Free Solo, he’s on a rope here’

Interview by Andrew Gilchrist

27, Feb, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Meru review – mountaineering doc goes over the top
This film of three adventurers braving storms and avalanches to conquer a Himalayan peak will leave non-fanatics at base camp

Henry Barnes

11, Feb, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Climbers review – stirring tribute to China's mountaineering hero
Bombastic and unsubtle this paean to Fang Wuzhou may be, but its vertiginous set-pieces put many US blockbusters to shame

Mike McCahill

04, Oct, 2019 @11:00 AM