Part documentary and part re-enactment, Kevin Macdonald’s account of a near-fatal attempt by two young Englishmen to scale a forbidding Andean peak in 1985 makes for absorbing, moving viewing. Both accomplished filmmaking and powerful human statement, “Touching the Void” makes Hollywood attempts to capture the climbing experience–pictures like “Cliffhanger” and “Vertical Limit”–look like the cheap melodrama they are. It’s a compelling and strangely beautiful piece of work.
Based on the book by Joe Simpson, the film relates the effort by him and Simon Yates to scale the treacherous Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The duo manages to reach the summit, but during the descent Simpson shatters his leg. Though Yates tries to lower his disabled friend down the treacherous slope, Simpson is eventually trapped danging above a gorge, and Yates is left with no choice but to cut the rope that connects them to save himself. Believing his friend to be dead, Yates makes his way back to their base camp, exhausted and grieving. But unknown to him, Simpson has made his way out of the chasm and struggles his way painfully toward the camp as well. Much of the latter portion of “Touching the Void” recounts his tortured effort to cross the first icy, then rocky landscape, and his trek is so stunningly realized that a viewer can almost feel his agony.
The “you-are-there” effect, in fact, permeates the film, beautifully shot using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron on locations in the Andes and the Alps. No other picture has so brilliantly caught both the exhilaration and the sheer physical brutality of the climbing experience. But it goes beyond that to present what is also a story of great courage and tenacity. By punctuating the narrative with observations by the real Simpson and Yates recalling their feelings and thoughts as the events actually unfolded, Macdonald raises the emotional tension of the piece. One can hardly fail to be moved by Simpson’s thoughts on religion and the afterlife–not at all the ones you might expect (and would certainly find in a fiction film)–when he thinks himself doomed, or by Yates’s still-raw explanation for his decision to cut the rope. (Simpson’s book was, in fact, intended in part to refute later criticism of his friend for having left him on the mountain.) There is a third person involved, though peripherally, in the events–Richard Hawking, a young man whom the climbers hired to man their base camp during their assault on the peak. His role is dramatized too, though only incidentally, and he also records his reminiscences.
There are points in “Touching the Void,” especially toward the close, when Macdonald miscalculates slightly. The recreation of Simpson’s hallucinatory final night on the way back to camp, complete with ghostly music and double exposures, goes overboard; it’s simply out of place against the more straightforward approach taken elsewhere, however much based on reality it might be.
Overall, however, this is a non-fiction film of rare impact. It easily takes its place among the succession of imaginative, powerful documentaries that have reached theatres over the past couple of years. Like mountain climbing itself, it’s both thrilling and rather terrifying.