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The Velvet Queen review – breathtaking nature doc on the patience of the pursuit

This meditative film, scored by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, explores the arduous labour of capturing images of animals in the wild

From a cinematography perspective, it's tempting to think that shooting a film in a place as visually dramatic as the Tibetan plateau might count as cheating. One only has to point a camera at the landscape to capture images of breathtaking beauty and scale. And yet The Velvet Queen is as much a nature documentary as it is a meditation on the sheer effort and dedication it takes to secure these stunning images.

Lugging camera and camping equipment through freezing temperatures in a region where the average elevation is around 4,500m above sea level is no easy feat. Directors Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier (himself a highly-renowned wildlife photographer) are joined by French author Sylvain Tesson (who also acts as the narrator) as they attempt to track down and photograph the extremely rare and reclusive snow leopard in the wild – the “Velvet Queen” of the title.

Throughout, the pair discuss the difficulties of the task at hand, with Munier extolling the virtues of extreme patience; endlessly surveying rocky outcrops with his binoculars for signs of life (he even has to ensure that Tesson does not tramp loudly across the landscape, spooking the animals). He speaks frequently of the sheer time required to capture just a single image, which makes it even more impressive when the film so frequently circles back to footage of the Tibetan wildlife: Tibetan antelopes charging across the plains kicking up dust. A Pallas’ cat making a cheeky attempt to sneak up on a falcon. A fox burrowing into a marmot’s burrow and emerging victorious. And then there’s the magical quality of the light: dawn mists reflecting back sunlight, or darkened snow clouds wrapping themselves over the peaks. This is all before we even catch sight of the snow leopard.

These dream-like images are backed by an ethereal soundtrack composed by Warren Ellis, aided by his good friend Nick Cave. Beyond The Bad Seeds, the two have developed a consistent sideline as masterful soundtrack composers: Ellis’ droning loops and Cave’s gentle touches add to the quasi-spiritual and meditative mindset that’s required to track the snow leopard.

The film’s philosophical aspect – ruminating on the qualities of patience, the essential beauty of the environment, the expanding gulf between humankind and nature that’s contributing to climate breakdown – is both its most interesting and rickety aspect. There are plenty of Herzogian comments on the sheer unknowability of the natural world (and a welcome lack of preachiness), but I also suspect that the repeat discussions around humankind’s collective extrication from nature ignores the many millions of indigenous peoples the world over (some of whom appear briefly in this film but are largely ignored). These people live, if not in harmony with nature, at least in communication with it – but their brief appearance in the film is a passing moment of circumstance.

Still, this is a film that needs to be seen in a cinema, such is its all-powering scale of image. A refreshing, meditative change of pace.

The Velvet Queen is released in UK cinemas and select streaming platforms from 29 April.

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