Dan Bailey reviews a new hillwalking movie that gives the landscape the starring role.
In an age that panders to the shortest attention span, where films seem to get louder, faster and more lavish all the time, it makes a refreshing change to view something at a gentler pace, a hillwalking film that's understated yet heartfelt. With this his first full-length feature, film-maker and outdoor blogger Terry Abraham has managed to capture the wild majesty of Scotland's own slice of the sub-Arctic; and he's done so on a minimal budget, and almost single-handed. Without any death-defying adventure film action - indeed without much of anything happening at all - The Cairngorms in Winter With Chris Townsend kept me enthralled for a full 90 minutes. This paean to the hills is not perfect - Abraham says so himself - but it shows what can be achieved if you truly love your subject. Interestingly, financial backing for the project came from Kickstarter, and it's hard not to see the result as a vindication of the crowd-sourced funding model.
'The epic landscape takes centre stage, while the human extra is just passing through leaving nothing but footprints'
The Cairngorms in Winter (etc) opens with a wide shot of almost minimalist simplicity; white snow, white sky, and one very small figure trudging towards camera. This perfectly sets the tone for a film in which the epic landscape takes centre stage, while the human extra - shaggy old man of the hills Chris Townsend - is just passing through, a fleeting presence pausing only long enough to stick on a brew and marvel at the surroundings, and leaving nothing but footprints in the snow.
However stunning the backdrop or slick their production, most of today's best adventure films share something fundamental in common. They are really about people, not mountains - top climbers perhaps, or rad skiers, getting their kicks on something a bit unfeasible. Will they succeed? Will they perish? Get too caught up in the human drama and we risk reducing the setting to an extreme sports arena, a giant theme park. Though that 'With Chris Townsend' bit might suggest otherwise The Cairngorms in Winter manages to escape this human-centric tendency almost entirely. Chris is there on screen, but he lets the mountains steal every scene. It's like landscape photography, with added sound and moving pictures.
'The wide panning shots allow these most sprawling of mountains to stretch right out across the screen'
Terry Abraham does sheer scale superbly, his style perfectly mirroring the rolling contours of the Cairngorms. Far from being confined and reduced by the camera, his wide panning shots allow these most sprawling of mountains to stretch right out across the screen.
As a narrator/presenter Chris Townsend is an ideal match too, with his gentle delivery and quiet, almost meditative receptivity to the world around him. He does not come across as a natural performer, he's too deadpan at times, but just imagine the gurning antics and rehearsed cadence that a TV pro might bring to the role. This isn't the BBC school of outdoor presenting, where some clueless C-lister has to be seen to get out of their depth for the benefit of a non-outdoorsy audience; neither is it the macho style where every danger is hammed up for dramatic effect. Chris Townsend is the real deal, one of the world's foremost experts on backpacking with a lifetime of wilderness experience and outdoor writing under his belt. The Cairngorms are his home patch, and his love and respect for them shine through - even if he doesn't always sound that enthused.
'Without wild places we are nothing, he says, so the Cairngorms matter to all of us'
Instead of the exaggerated presenting cliches what we get is simple competence. Townsend just gets out there and gets on with it - camping high on a snowbound Moine Mhor, skiing over the plateaux, snow-shoeing into the Lairig Ghru in a hoolie before bidding a wise retreat. This isn't man against mountain, it's man at home in the mountains. The result is that we're left free to concentrate not on what Townsend's actually doing but rather on what really matters, the stunning, indifferent, snowbound grandeur of the high Cairngorms; the swirling timelapse clouds and glowering crags; blinding snowfields and a constant play of light over the land; spindrift through the heather and the silent beauty of the native pine woods, relics from a wilder age.
To capture all this Abraham and Townsend clearly had to put in a lot of leg work, out in all weathers and no doubt freezing their nuts off shooting scenes in wind, snow and deep frost.
'We've not done anything like this before, so it was a tremendously steep learning curve' Abraham says in a recent blog. '...It was truly challenging on so many levels.'
'[From] how the weather can change in an instant, to the physical side of heading out there and filming, much of what I produced was pure luck. But being 'out there' certainly helped to say the least.'
Behind the lens Terry Abraham was a one-man band, filming, directing and editing the lot. He was an amateur film-maker hitherto, though after The Cairngorms in Winter I suspect that may be set to change. He's done superbly well at conveying the very special essence of the place, and the occasional tiny bits of roughness around the edges with sound balance or tricky blown-out lighting contrasts don't really jar. Indeed if the end result had been too slick then something vital might have been lost. Watch the technically imperfect film as it is and you know that there's no crew, no backup and no cinematic sleight of hand; it's just two guys out in the hills.
The score by Freddiehangoler sets the mood to a T at times but elsewhere it begins to dominate, and I find the crescendos a little melodramatic. This isn't the Lord of the Rings, it's a film about mountains, and I don't need blaring orchestral music to tell me how to respond to them. But to be fair, compared to how bad movie music can be the score is pretty well done. My only other niggle is similarly minor. I appreciate that this film was a massive undertaking, and that in a range full of wonders it must have been hard deciding just what to include; but given that we'd already had a long low-level sequence in the rather more exciting Glen Feshie I'd have gladly swapped the scenes in Ryvoan for more of the really wild stuff. If we want to see just how arctic the Cairngorms in winter can get then what about a journey onto Braeriach's plateau and down into peerless An Garbh Choire, or in similar vein the Garbh Choire of Beinn a' Bhuird? I'd have loved to see the amazing Loch Etchachan in a winter deep freeze, or a ski tour around the summit tors of Ben Avon.
So what actually happens in 90 minutes? Well it's all very slow-paced - but in a good way. There's a lot of standing quietly admiring the views, and a fair bit of gas stove action. Chris Townsend carries a heavy-looking bag through some of his favourite spots - Ryvoan, Glen Feshie, the Lairig Ghru. We get enviably gorgeous wild camps both in the woods and up on the tops. There's a ski tour over to Ben Macdui in the sort of crystal clear conditions that we all dream about but rarely get. Facts about the Cairngorms are peppered through the narration, but there's no overwhelming avalanche of info; it's not that sort of programme. Tips are offered on things like winter travel, camping in snow and simple map and compass navigation too, but it's basic stuff covered in no real depth. Who is this advice aimed at? Seasoned hill-goers don't need to be told to bring a map and compass up a winter Munro, but how many non-walkers or non-climbers are likely to see this film at all? Yet this approach makes perfect sense if you're making a film that fundamentally stars the mountains themselves, where nothing else is allowed too much chance to distract from the landscape. In this film it's not what you do, it's where you do it that counts. That's great for a one-off 90 minutes of Cairngorm porn, but I'm not sure my 21st Century attention span could hold out through a whole series of movies in similar vein.
If you already know and love the Cairngorms then you'll revel in the cinematic flattery that Terry Abraham gives to old flames like Braeriach and Sgor Gaoith, and share Chris Townsend's obvious (if understated) passion for this unique range. And for those who've not yet had the pleasure of a visit then it is hard to imagine a better advert for the Cairngorms in winter.
As Chris Townsend says at some point:
'Without wild places we are nothing, so the Cairngorms matter to all of us'
The Cairngorms in Winter With Chris Townsend premiers at George Fishers in Keswick today (Saturday 18 May). There'll then be big screen showings at the Rheged Centre, Penrith 22-27 July.
It's available to download or watch on demand from June at Steep Edge