Moonflower - First Review

Scoop early look at the new Alastair Lee, Alaskan climbing epic to be shown at Kendal this week.

Posted: 17 November 2011
by Jon

Jon Bracey (left) and Matt Helliker route spotting. Their understated breeziness sets the tone of the film.
And this is what they're looking at.
The climber-shot footage gives a real sense of intimacy and pulls you into their focussed bubble of concentration on the route itself. Six days of this...
Post-climb footage to camera keeps the film eminently watchable.
This is a dead parrot...

Alastair Lee's latest production, Moonflower, is set to be one of the leading attractions at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival - see our insider guide for other must see films - and we've just watched the full festival cut over breakfast.

It's the story of British alpinists Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey's attempt to climb a new route on Alaska's Mount Hunter, a steep, starkly beautiful, mixed buttress sometimes nicknamed 'The Nose' of Alaska. Where it differs from most of Lee's previous films is that he wasn't actually there.

Instead filming was carried out on the route by the two climbers themselves, with specialist cameraman David Reeves contributing some stunning distance and time-lapse photography including the epic opening scenes of the mountain filmed from the ski plane taking the team in to base camp - the alternative would be a seven-day walk-in with epic loads.

Slow Burner...

It's a slow burn of a film. It starts with those epic aerial views of the mountain before stepping back into the background of the climb and an introduction to Mount Hunter itself via a mix of still photos and talking heads, before diving back into the story of the climb itself.

Before the guys get onto the route, there's the familiar lull before the action, watching a stunning avalanche cascading towards their camp - 'I think we're in a safe place here, but there's not a lot you can do' - scoping out the route scenes and so on. All this is filmed by David Reeves, so there's a sense of being on the outside looking in.

All that changes once the climb itself begins and suddenly it's the climbers themselves filming. There are strengths and weaknesses to that. On the one hand you feel the immediacy of the action, have a sense of 'being there', but on the other, climbers aren't professional cameramen and, understandably, once the going gets tough, both lead climber and second have more pressing commitments than filming. 

Intimate Connections...

It makes you appreciate, retrospectively, just what an achievement The Asgard Project was in terms of getting inside a team, but there's still a raw immediacy to some of the action, not least when the portaledge collapses in mid-pee...

The action scenes from the route are intercut with some stunning distance photography from Reeves down below - watch out for the oddly disturbing dead bird - and retrospective footage of the climbers talking about their experience. Generally it works pretty well and you can see Lee's expert hand at work in the editing.

The tone of the film is set by the climbers themselves, in much the same way that Leo Houlding's charismatic presence dominates The Asgard Project. Visually they're a contrasting pair with Helliker's blond, dishevelled, California-style surf dude style and mannerisms set against Bracey's more British, hollow-cheeked clean-cut demeanour, but they seem to share a sunny, understated, optimism and matter-of-fact breeziness even when things are clearly tough.

In a way that undermines the epicness of what they're doing, but it also says a lot about the understated positivity you need to spend six days inching your way up a desperately hard route in the face of deteriorating weather and fierce conditions. We still think that dark introspection makes for better films though...

Highly Watchable...

Overall it's a really watchable bit of film that doesn't quite reach the highs and lows of the Asgard Project, but scores lots of positive points in the intimate way it pulls you onto the route with the climbers, in its lively mix of firsthand footage and post-event reportage. And it's given context nicely by the distant views of the face that take you out of the climbers' small bubble of fierce concentration.

We asked Lee if having to edit someone else's footage was frustrating in that he couldn't necessarily choose the shots he might have taken himself and his response was: 'Well it s a double edged sword! On the one hand you don't have to worry about it as there's nothing you can do about it, you have to work with what you are given. On the other hand you worry about it as there's nothing you can do about it, you have to work with what you are given.'

What we'd say is that as a result it has quite a different feel and range to the Asgard film, but not in a bad way. For all the epic climbing and the stunning views, it's also very intimate in the way it pulls you into the focussed bubble of the climbers themselves on the face and the self-shot footage of the climbing and bivvies.

Would we buy it? Yes, definitely. It's an absorbing, understated climbing film that mixes Lee's characteristically watchable production with a tone that's set by the climbers themselves, to give highly watchable results.

You can catch The Moonflower at the Kendal Mountain Festival this weekend - see for full details. Alternatively, you can pre-order the DVD at Lee's web site at

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Moonflower, Kendal Mountain Festival 2011, Alastair Lee

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