Published Jan 01, 2006Climbing a mountain can always be relied upon to stand in as a readymade meditation on the joys and perils of self-discovery. Touching the Void may be the first film to dispel the myths of this metaphor.
Directed by gifted director Kevin MacDonald, the film reconstructs in great detail the disastrous 1985 attempt made by British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates to scale the Siula Grande Mountain in the Peruvian Andes. What started out as "a good day out" turned bad when Simpson slipped on their dissent and his lower leg drove into his kneecap, leaving him nearly crippled. The injury forced Yates to make a rather gut-wrenching decision: attempt to rescue his climbing partner and risk losing both their lives in the process, or cut the rope and attempt to make it down the mountain on his own. Whoa. Though Touching the Void is a very physical film, it is at its core an existential examination of life at its most stark.
Based on Simpson's bestselling book of the same name, the film is semi-documentary in form and makes use of staged sequences of the climb (Brendan Mackay as Simpson, Nicholas Aaron as Yates), as well as the actual oral accounts of the two survivors. Despite knowing the eventual outcome, the story and its telling is a gripping one, both profound and terrifying in its own right. We experience every bit of the pain, exhaustion and effort that Simpson endures on the way down and we suffer with Yates as he makes the moral and ethical choice that sets the story in motion.
Much of this is a testament to director Kevin MacDonald's steady, understated hand. Like his Academy Award-winning documentary, One Day in September, he knows only too well what to do with powerful material and provides his subjects the opportunity to speak plainly and lucidly about the lessons they learn on the mountain. And we, in turn, forgive him his sometimes clichéd pandering to the "mountain as myth" filmmaking form the "pick in the ice" shot, the high five at the peak.
There are comic moments here too, particularly the description of a stream-of-consciousness moment in which Simpson describes dragging himself to the base camp and being able only to hear the song "Brown Girl In the Ring." "I thought, bloody hell, I'm not going to die to Boney M.'" Yet another example of why mountain climbing is for the strong of will. (Alliance Atlantis)