(R) 4 stars
If you’re in the mood for a harrowing true story of a mountain climber’s worst nightmare, recounted by the two Brits it happened to and reenacted by actors, I suggest you stop reading this review right now and head for the theater to see Touching the Void. For those of you still with me, please be aware that I’ll be referencing certain facts that would normally be considered “spoilers.” Can’t be helped. The very structure of this unique quasi-documentary gives away the ending. I mean, the fact that the story is recounted by the pair it happened to makes it clear that they both lived. The story is riveting, nonetheless, because the dramatic tension in Touching the Void comes not from wondering whether they’ll live, but from witnessing how they do it.
Documentarian Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) made the film, based on the autobiography of mountain climber Joe Simpson. Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates tell the tale, with bits of commentary from Richard Hawking, the man who maintained the base camp. Recreations of the events use actors Brendan McCay (Simpson), Nicholas Aaron (Simon) and Ollie Ryall (Hawking).
A few critics have taken the film to task for the staged scenes. I don’t see what the problem is. There are no attempts at deception here, and the visuals are immeasurably helpful in understanding the logistics of the trek.
Sitting in nice warm rooms, thank you very much, Simpson, Yates and (periodically) Hawking take us back to early summer in 1985, when they decided to climb the previously unscaled western face of Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. After recruiting Hawking to wait for them at the base camp (selecting him seems rather haphazard, by the way; more information would be helpful), 21-year-old Simpson and 25-year-old Yates take off for their climb. The trip up goes as smoothly as something like this could go and, three days later, the boys reach the summit.
But, on the way down, Simpson loses his footing, falls and shatters his leg, breaking the fibula and driving it up through his kneecap. Both men refrain from panic at this nightmarish turn of events. Yates employs winches and two 150-foot ropes to lower his injured friend, which works well until more trouble hits. The end result leaves Yates with a decision to make: Simpson is dangling far below him, out of sight and non-responsive to rope tugs. His friend may very well be dead and the weight of his body will eventually pull down Yates. With great reluctance, Yates cuts the rope (don’t send me any e-mails crying about spoilers — you were warned) and begins the descent to camp.
Simpson (who states loud and clear that Yates made the correct decision) soon finds himself deep in a massive ice crevasse, left for dead and unable to climb up because of his injury. And you think you’ve got troubles? If you expect that Simpson will turn to God in his horrible situation (I was sure he would), think again. Though raised a Catholic, he stopped believing in God years earlier and his dire straits do not trigger a spiritual epiphany. Simpson, who wondered if a crisis might someday renew his faith, matter-of-factly notes that it does not, adding, “I really think that when you die, you die. There is no afterlife.”
Even though you know that both men survive, Touching the Void remains fascinating and suspenseful because of the how of it. How can Simpson be in such a situation and not look to a higher source? How can he possibly get out of the crevasse, let alone traverse the distance to base camp? Gradually, despite his unsentimental nature and great gift for understatement, you get to know Simpson and you feel for him as circumstance strips him down to the animal level.
Thankfully, there are moments of humor, as when his plight is at its bleakest and Simpson gets the song “Brown Girl in the Rain” by Boney M stuck in his head. Try not to laugh when you hear, “I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, I’m gonna die to Boney M!’”
I wish the end of the film had provided a little more emotional resolution. We learn what happens to the guys after the ordeal, but one question is never answered: Did Simpson and Yates remain friends? Regardless, Touching the Void packs a real wallop as it offers outstanding visuals, a deeply engrossing adventure story and a stark glimpse at the human condition. At AMC Castleton Arts.