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Free Solo – 4.5 out of 5 (Film 8 of 2019)

I’ve given this film 4.5 stars because I’m sure if I tried I could find a flaw. Seeing Free Solo is the most visceral, immersive movie-going experience I’ve had in a long time.

Going into the cinema I know our free-solo climber, Alex, won’t fall to his death. Despite knowing this my palms are sweaty throughout and there are times I just have to close my eyes. I don’t suffer from vertigo (if you do, needless to say, don’t see this film) but I’m not great with heights either. Considering that the ultimate tension which might come with the question of his succeeding or dying is removed from their pallet the filmmakers have still managed a griping and emotionally engaging story.

The film is beautifully shot, yes, but what really makes it sing is the people. Not just Alex, but all the people around him too – his new girlfriend, his mum, the camera crew, his various climbing companions. The exploration of who he is, why free climbing appeals to him, and the processes he goes through to approach free solos is fascinating. But so too are the emotional journeys of the people who love and care about Alex. To love him means supporting his doing this thing where one mistake is death. Which is, of course, a thing everyone grapples with at some point in some relationship – if not in quite so stark terms – but having to support something you don’t understand because of love. The toll that takes on his friends and family is evident. And, yet, Alex didn’t come across as selfish to me. This is who he is, he’s a guy who doesn’t believe that his first priority is to live as long as possible. Yet he clearly works endlessly to remove as much risk as he can – to free solo is to memorise a precise choreography of one reach and step at a time. The joy this brings him is so manifest as to be infectious.

This is the second of the Oscar’s Best Feature Length Documentary nominees for 2018 I’ve seen. The other was RBG – which I quite enjoyed. I didn’t want Free Solo to be better, but it was.

Free Solo is the 3rd film I’ve seen this year with a female director – in this case a female co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi who was working with her husband Jimmy Chin.

Synopsis from Dendy

Live beyond fear.

From the directors of Meru comes FREE SOLO, a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of the free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream of climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock – the 3,200ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope. Celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, Honnold’s climb set the ultimate standard: perfection or death. Succeeding in this challenge places his story in the annals of human achievement.

FREE SOLO is an edge-of-your seat thriller and an inspiring portrait of an athlete who challenges both his body and his beliefs on a quest to triumph over the impossible, revealing the personal toll of excellence. As the climber begins his training, the armour of invincibility he’s built up over decades unexpectedly breaks apart when Honnold begins to fall in love, threatening his focus and giving way to injury and setbacks. The film beautifully captures deeply human moments with Honnold as well as the death-defying climb with exquisite artistry and masterful, vertigo-inducing camerawork. The result is a triumph of the human spirit.

Seen at Dendy Newtown on 4 February 2019

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