It may be reductive to boil down the noteworthy aspects of a person’s life to their absolute essentials but it’s also a necessary function of narrative filmmaking, for better or worse. Sulphur and White tells the true story of high-flying city trader David Tait (Mark Stanley, best-known as Night’s Watch recruit Grenn in Game of Thrones). Tait overcame harrowing childhood abuse in South Africa to get rich in London’s Square Mile (historic nickname for the city’s centre) and subsequently become a successful mountaineer who climbed Everest five times and raised more than £1million for children’s charities. In one sentence, four major themes lend themselves to exciting and dramatic action that would surely leap from script to screen to dazzle viewers. It’s The Wolf of Wall Street meets Cliffhanger (Sylvester Stallone’s 1990s mountain climbing classic) with a few upsetting youthful flashbacks, surely? As it happens, director Julian Jarrold’s film is more concerned with the emotional cost and redemption of a broken man than any rush of adrenalin.
Stanley and a game supporting cast that includes terrestrial TV drama stalwart Anna Friel and Mission: Impossible II villain Dougray Scott as Tait’s parents do their best, even if thrilling action is sidelined for frequent woozy flashbacks of Tait’s gruesome sunbaked upbringing in Johannesburg and his rather broadly portrayed emotional journey in London. When Tait leaves his wife and young child to get stuck into a city life of parties, sexual encounters with his boss’s wife and high-pressure transactions worth millions, it somehow all feels a little too bland.
The depiction of life in the turbulent financial sector does have a ring of truth to it though, and the horrifying scenes in which we see Tait stuck in a hellish store-room waiting to be sexually abused are managed with sensitivity. This is no doubt due to the hundreds of hours screenwriter Susie Farrell worked with Tait to tell his story. Her diligence shows. We’re left with the sense that Tait needed to discover true love to overcome the absence of it he received while growing up and to face up to the unimaginable traumas of his childhood. We feel for him during his inevitable breakdown, though perhaps not as much as we would have with a touch more nuance in the dialogue.
Tait eventually finds love with colleague Vanessa (played by the typically excellent if underused Emily Beecham, Little Joe) and we’re glad for him. When Tait’s tale finally reaches its conclusion after a slightly overlong two hours, relegating the mountain-climbing to cursory end-credit photographs seems like a slightly missed opportunity. Budgetary restrictions presumably scuppered the extravagant location work needed for a whole film of Everest-based action, but if the care shown elsewhere had been applied, a bigger glimpse into that vital aspect of Tait’s life would have given things a much needed extra dimension.
- Director: Julian Jarrold
- Starring: Mark Stanley, Anna Friel, Dougray Scott
- Release date: March 6