Topography of Terror
(A Lonely Place to Die, Julian Gilbey, UK, 2011, 99 mins)
“Because it’s there” isn’t going to cut it once you’ve experienced Julian Gilbey’s mountainside ordeal. The belligerents may be human but it’s the Scottish Highlands, replete with chasms, crumbling edifices, drowning currents and jagged snares underfoot, that give this thriller an enjoyable air of combative realism; nature is a formidable obstacle and arguably a greater foe than the huntsman tracking the climbers who chance upon a Serbian girl in a custom made pit.
Peaks have featured as a supporting character before of course, memorably in Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger and Riefenstahl’s Das blaue Licht, but rarely has the experience of negotiating the topography, with its many dangers, been captured as viscerally, and with such kineticism as here.
Gilbey handles action as though he were a participant, rather than adopting the position of a dispassionate filmmaker with a God’s eye approach to composition. His subjective camera instead rests on the shoulder of each incident, narrowly avoiding a plummeting body, in sympathy with Melissa George who desperately clings to the valley edge, tracking with characters through low level undergrowth and resting an inch away from impacting bullets. This is the chase from the animal’s perspective and it’s instinctively shot. The sense of danger is palpable.
Having made the captive girl’s backstory secondary to the terrain for two thirds of the picture, Gilbey wisely brings it to the fore in the final act, leaving the mountains behind and relocating the action to the innocuous surroundings of a village in the midst of a lively Celtic festival. This is a welcome transition, the first two acts having comprehensively permeated the interstices of every conceivable hazard from falls to fauna. The civilised environs of the village provide a nice counterpoint to the preceding action.
The final third neatly undermines the illusion of a safe refuge for the surviving characters, violating reliable strongholds such the humble village police station and the home with a cosy fireplace. Gilbey shows great skill in turning whichever environment he designates as a theatre of action into a minefield; whether it’s on the peak or at ground level, the audience is denied any sort of comfort. It’s refreshing when a film can sustain this for 100 minutes without breaking a sweat.
There’s little room for characterisation in light of the brouhaha but maybe it would be unkind to expect too much; Gilbey is more interested in eliciting primal pangs in the spectator; fear, the survival instinct, maternal protectiveness.
Early scenes with a naturalistic bent give enough life to the group to make them sympathetic prey but there’s a sense here, as in most movies, that a kind of received wisdom is in evidence; the idea that you can’t hang around too long before advancing the action. It can’t be too novel an idea to spend a little time with your characters before engaging them in extremis, surely? It may break with the sanctity of the three act structure but here, as in most comparable narratives, the additional investment in the relationship between the protagonists; downtime to flesh them out; would have bound the audience to their plight using emotion and friendly concern, rather than the assumed empathy and gut instinct upon which A Lonely Place to Die relies.