Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Touching the Void

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Touching the Void

a review by Sheila Seacroft

Has there ever been a great mountaineering film? So asked Chris Peachment in his review (reprinted in the Time Out Film Guide) of 1950 climbing melodrama The White Tower . Well, there is now.

Touching the Void is the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates disastrous assault on the hitherto-unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Andes. Following a gruelling ascent to the summit, Simpson falls during the increasingly hazardous descent, shattering his leg. Yates, at the other end of the rope and unable to see what is below, is forced to lower him painstakingly down. When the mountainside falls away and Simpson is dangled over an ice cliff, Yates is placed in an impossible position. Unaware of what has happened, and also of whether his companion is alive or dead, and with no alternative other than to be pulled off the mountain himself, Yates commits the ultimate taboo act in mountaineering he cuts the rope binding him to his companion. Simpson falls into the void: a crevasse the size of St Pauls Cathedral, a nightmare of cold and darkness. In enormous pain he goes the only way he can downwards and eventually emerges onto the mountainside to face an unimaginable crawl of pain, exhaustion and dwindling consciousness towards base-camp.

The film is based upon Joe Simpsons account in the book of the same name, written partly to exonerate Yates from the blame of cutting of the rope, and Kevin Macdonald, Oscar-winning director of One Day in September, has used a combination of re-enactment by actors and studio-based, straight-to-camera description and voice-overs by the two climbers themselves. These two very ordinary looking men recount their nightmare of life and death decision-making – infinite pain, near-death experiences, and guilt. Their recollections are intercut with breathtaking shots of the stunningly beautiful mountain, and with tinier details: the painstaking knotting of a rope with frozen fingers, the badly-dehydrated Simpson lapping up the first grey, muddy water he can find, boots stamping their way into vertical snow to find a hold.

Its a story of an amazing, almost inhuman will to survive. A clich, perhaps, but rarely done with such credible intensity, and its refreshingly far from humourless maybe the most nightmarish possibility of all could be that of dying to the unstoppable sound of Boney M in your head. If you are fascinated by the human response to extreme situations, you will find this film totally compelling. If you love mountains, and have ever wished you could climb them, you will adore it.

by Sheila Seacroft

For Neil’s original review click here