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Film review: The Revenant – DiCaprio survival tale is visually stunning yet ponderous

This is a film only a newly minted Academy Award winner would dare to make. Alejandro González Iñárritu puts his lead star through almost comedic hardships in what is ultimately a conventional tale for all its technical mastery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 6:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 6:15am

Last year, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling Birdman deservedly won the best picture Oscar. Just 12 months later, the Mexican director returns with a work that only a filmmaker riding stratospherically high would attempt: a punishing survival epic shot in the wilds of Canada using only natural light. The Revenant, though, is more Apocalypse Now than Heaven’s Gate.

Based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, the story is stark bordering on scrawny. In 1820s America, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is left for dead by fellow fur trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and companions, after attacks by Native Americans and other indignant indigents. Hungry for vengeance – and food – Glass hobbles back to “civilisation” across the unforgiving icescapes.

Though the story is supposedly true, it beggars belief that Glass could live through such an ordeal, and DiCaprio goes through almost comedic levels of hardship to bag that elusive Oscar, at one point staring into the camera as if entreating voters directly.

While the cast – particularly Hardy – are excellent, the visuals are extraordinary. The action sequences roar with wretched beauty, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera galloping across the plains and gliding down freezing river rapids at Glass’ side. In the wilderness, however, the pace turns ponderous. This is among the coldest films ever made, and the central conflict doesn’t quite have the dramatic heat to thaw things.

“Revenge is in the creator’s hands,” Glass is told, but you get the sense that the film, like Apocalypse Now, has more to say about its creator than its characters. The Revenant’s often breathtaking technical accomplishment hides quite a conventional tale. The result is a greater cinematic achievement than it is a film-viewing experience.

The Revenant opens on January 8