Clearly these are strange days full-stop, but it's an especially strange time to be reviewing films, given that a) the UK government, for reasons beyond our paygrade, has yet to provide a good reason for not shutting the cinemas that may presently be serving as Petri dishes, and b) the context films are passing into has fundamentally altered. Even humdrum filler might now play like a reminder of the world out there, being kept at bay or approached with caution as we collectively wait for this nastiest of bugs to pass. That unexpected poignancy attaches itself to the most outward-bound of the week's scheduled releases, Alastair Lee's documentary Climbing Blind, which details the efforts of Jesse Dufton - a buff, blind member of the GB paraclimbing squad - to scale the Old Man of Hoy, a 115-metre stone finger rising up off the Orkney coast. At least one of Lee's interviewees floats the notion that, by most climbers' standards, this isn't a particularly complex or arduous challenge: shorn of those fearsome overhanging vectors we saw Alex Honnold navigate in 2018's Free Solo, it's a straight-up ascent, allowing Jesse's guide and life-partner Molly to spot him as he goes. Still, you and I wouldn't exactly leap at the chance to take it on, and bear in mind Jesse has to attach all his guy ropes and carabiners by touch alone. (I also wouldn't be reassured by a feature of the Old Man known as "the Coffin slot".) The one advantage Jesse Dufton has - and it does strike me as a big one - is that he cannot look down.
A veteran of the climbing-film community, Lee crams spectacle big and small into these 70 minutes. He's spent enough time around Jesse to notice the basic everyday obstacles the climber's condition presents him with - we're offered deft, quietly unsettling snapshots of Jesse stumbling over conifers and traffic cones most of us could step around - and to get his subject to open up in a way you never felt Honnold had to. Jesse notes that he actually feels he's become a better climber since his eyesight deteriorated, though he appears to blink back tears upon expressing a regret that he hadn't seen enough of Molly's face before the fade to black. (Here, again, the present situation looms into view: right now, there are lots of faces we aren't seeing enough of.) Lee only fumbles a little when it comes to securing his narrative line. A decision was evidently taken in post-production to intercut Jesse's climb with training anecdotes and scenes from his daily life: I think the aim may have been to break up what could have been a relatively straightforward bottom-to-top haul, but it has the effect of undercutting the drama of the climb itself. We want the sustained suspense, to sit back and marvel at this guy getting on with it; instead, his progress is sporadically interrupted and stalled by the account of how he got there.
It's a pity, because you really couldn't want for better angles of the climb. In a rare example of drone technology being a rewarding creative choice, rather than a hackneyed fallback, we're left to hover at a distance from the Old Man and the young dude tugging at his coattails, the better to leave Jesse to it, and for us to measure how far he has to go (or drop). You're reminded how - from Harold Lloyd in Safety Last to Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossibles - the cinema screen has always been an optimal shape for watching tiny, mortal humans scrabbling to reach new heights. If Climbing Blind does reach UK screens - this Friday, or at some later date - it's been paired with The Big Deal?, a 12-minute short in which Lee tags along with novice Frances Bensley as she transitions from indoor climbing to the great outdoors. Here are the babysteps (and babygrabs) climbers have to make before they reach the peaks tackled by the likes of Honnold and Dufton: in this example, stomping about the Welsh countryside with portable crashmats, seeing whether you can get much over ten feet without turning an ankle. It comes with a light smattering of technical talk, and some promotional consideration for the crashmat manufacturer (a producer here), but also the genuinely stirring sight of a fellow human stretching and gradually elevating herself to a higher plain. We can but hope Dufton and Bensley will get back out there soon enough, and that they're not presently climbing the walls.
Climbing Blind is currently scheduled to open in selected cinemas from Friday, as part of the Brit Rock Film Tour. For details and updates, check here.