Seemingly escaped onto the big screen from PBS, the documentary The Wildest Dream is a respectable but often dry and dull account of the efforts of famed mountaineer George Mallory to climb Mt. Everest in 1924, along with modern adventurer Conrad Anker’s 2007 expedition to re-create Mallory’s climb and prove that Mallory might have actually reached Everest’s summit before his death. Director Anthony Geffen, a longtime TV documentarian making his feature debut, tells Mallory’s story with the typical mix of expert interviews, historical footage and hushed voice-over, although he augments it with some pretty striking firsthand images of Anker and his climbing partner ascending Everest along Mallory’s route.
The movie is thus a little disjointed, and mixing the actual climbing footage with the soporific educational-film historical material doesn’t do it a great service. Anker’s expedition is juxtaposed with stilted re-enactments of Mallory’s doomed effort and overwrought readings of letters by Mallory, his wife and his climbing partners (performed with excessive reverence by Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Dancy, Alan Rickman and Natasha Richardson, in her final film project). Liam Neeson’s narration over-explains the process, but it still can’t distract from the awe of seeing Everest itself, or the power of watching Anker and his own partner struggling to climb Everest’s notorious “Second Step” without the ladder that has aided other climbers for decades.
The Wildest Dream opens with Anker finding Mallory’s frozen, partially preserved body on the mountain in 1999, and goes to great pains to play up the similarities between the two (Anker even attempts parts of his climb wearing 1924 period mountaineering attire). Yet its greatest resonance comes not from this contrived connection, but from the simple beauty of Everest’s natural wonders.