In Review

Film review: The Velvet Queen

Beautifully shot documentary about Tibet’s elusive snow leopard

This ravishingly beautiful film follows wildlife photographer Vincent Munier and travel writer Sylvain Tesson as they comb Tibet in search of the elusive snow leopard, said Kevin Maher in The Times. In “thrillingly immediate footage”, we see the pair come across bears, foxes, falcons and bharals (aka blue sheep) while engaging in “deeply serious debates” about “the nature of looking and being and the hopelessness of humanity”. All this is set to a “soulful, plaintive score” by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. The film sits “somewhere between David Attenborough and Samuel Beckett” – our two protagonists are “endlessly waiting”; but their patience and the viewer’s pays off when the film’s star, the camera-shy leopard, “eventually makes an appearance”. 

The Velvet Queen was originally intended for television, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail, but it was considered “so cinematic” it was given a big-screen release. Television’s loss is cinema’s gain, as the photography here is “truly breathtaking”. I saw it at the end of a long day and was snapped out of my weariness by the “incredibly powerful image” of a “lone snow leopard, sleek and elegant, standing on a mountain ledge, considering its options and looking anything but vulnerable”. 

The film certainly looks extraordinary, said Wendy Ide in The Observer, but I could have done without the “highly ornamental narration”. For Tesson, the search for the leopard is a “profoundly spiritual” experience (“Prehistory wept,” he says at one point, “and each tear was a yak.”). But if you can handle the voice-over, I challenge you “not to be moved” by this film, which captures the “stark drama” of Tibet, and the “magnificent indifference of the natural world”.

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