Touching the Void (UK, 2003) ****
Directed by Kevin Macdonald; based on the book by Joe Simpson; photography, Mike Eley; editing, Justine Wright; music, Alex Heffes; producer,John Smithson; co-producer, Sue Summers; an IFC Films release. 102 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (themselves) and Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Simon Yates), Richard Hawking (himself).
“This is a true story” is generally a statement which means little so far as the finished movie is concerned. Here, however, it means a very great deal.
Back in 1985, two friends and mountain-climbing devotees, Simon Yates (then 21) and Joe Simpson (then 25) decided to climb the unclimbed west face of the redoubtable Siula Grande in the Andes of Peru. They made it to the top of the 2,100 feet mountain -- something no other climbers have achieved to date. But as they began their descent, major catastrophes hit. Let my readers remain in a state of suspense as to what happened to whom, and why.
Just learn that both men survived, amazingly so for Simpson after his many days of incredible hardships – plus an extremely nasty broken leg worthy of the tortures of the Inquisition. Three years later he published the book “Touching the Void” which brought him the major Boardman Tasker Award, fame, and fortune.
The movie, filmed in the Andes as well as the European Alps, was directed by master-documentarist Kevin MacDonald who won an Oscar (1999) as well as top prizes elsewhere, for “One Day in September” about the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics of 1972 (MacDonald was just 5 that year.)
Mr. MacDonald’s family is a royal one in the domain of cinema. His grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who shortly before World War II moved to England, was “ more English than the Brits,” and partnered with the great Michael Powell. The two collaborators, masters of all cinema trades, made many of the best movies in the U.K.-- and the world at large for that matter. Note too that Kevin Mcdonald’s brother Andrew Mcdonald is a major producer who started out with “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting.”
The horrors and terrors we witness make up a one-o-a-kind movie, the like of which perhaps does not exist, even in survival films.
The picture is extraordinary in every way. Suspense is terrific and unique. The movie we watch is intercut by talking heads (Simpson, Yates, sometimes Hawking, that inexperienced bystander) many years after the events So we know that Simpson did survive, but this does not reduce the level of the tensions. Note too that the people who address us are surprisingly youthful. They have a relatively mild Cockney accent which democratizes them and makes them contemporary, as opposed to the cultivated sounds of so much older, elitist British cinema.
“Mountain Films” are a small sub-genre of fiction cinema. They got their biggest boost in the Germany of the 1920s and through the Nazi regime. Before the recently deceased Leni Riefenstahl achieved world fame and admiration (as well as accusations) with her Hitler-sanctifying “The Triumph of the Will” and the more covertly propagandistic “Olympia,” she had been the star of mountain movies which, overtly or not praised the courage of the Germans. In a clear sense “Triumph of the Will” could be the title of all mountain-climbing films and for Simpson’s survival in “Touching the Void.”
“Void” is extraordinary--a tour-de-force in every way—its subject, conditions, the fantastic reality of Simpson, the ways and conditions of its shooting. Potential viewers should bear in mind that for a change this is not a movie-movie, but a serious, gripping gem of reality.