Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Touching the Void

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

TOUCHING THE VOID

4/10

UK 2003 : Kevin MACDONALD : 106 mins

Simply
put, Touching
the Void is the
story of two blokes
who adventure themselves
into a whole lot of trouble,
then have to adventure themselves
all the way back out of it again. Its
an adaptation of Joe Simpsons book
revered as a classic of modern mountaineering
literature which recounts how in 1985 Simpson
(then 25) and his friend Simon Yates (then 21) set
out to scale the previously unconquered 21,000-foot
west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. The
ascent went relatively well, but getting down proved altogether
trickier: as the film informs us, 80% of climbing accidents occur
during descent. The pair were separated in hazardous circumstances,
and Simpson agonisingly shattered his leg when Yates faced with an
impossible moral dilemma cut their connecting rope so that the pair wouldnt
be dragged to certain death. Each must then draw upon superhuman reserves of
strength, resilience, and courage to make it back to base-camp alive Director Macdonald
comes from a documentary background he won the Oscar for One Day in September and
Touching the Void is an awkward hybrid of documentary and feature-film techniques. Staged
recreations (with Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron as Simpson and Yates) alternate with copious
talking-head recollections from the real Simpson and Yates, speaking directly (and separately) to-camera
in the present day. This was probably the only way that the circumstances of the climb and descent could
have been imparted to a non-expert audience, but it comes at a significant cost – knowing from the outset that
both men survive eliminates any element of suspense. Of course, the po-faced Touching the Void is a world away
from ludicrous (but enjoyable) mountain-set thrillers like Cliffhanger (in which Sylvester Stallone endures blizzard conditions
in a tight t-shirt) and the more recent Vertical Limit: this is a serious, careful account, and its clear that Simpson and Yates would
have a mountain-mans scorn for any kind of Hollywood-style exaggeration or gratuitous effect. Macdonald goes too far in the opposite
direction, however, with strangely uninvolving even, at times, boring – results. There may be no explanation or mention of the title in the
film, but this reviewer found himself touching – and indeed embracing the void on more than one occasion, as the torpid pace proved more
soporific than stirring. It also doesn’t help that Macdonald often opts for the kind of soaring choral music that inevitably accompanies this kind
of spectacular mountain footage, or that his actors Mackey and Aaron seem to have been chosen more for their climbing prowess than for their
resemblance to the real-life people (zero) or their thespian skills (they barely speak). At one stage, Simpson and Yates recall exchanging a look fraught
with all kinds of significance and emotion which is dramatised as what looks more like a glance of mild peevishness. Of course, its churlish to complain
about having to endure a tedious movie when the film itself is concerned with such daunting feats of endurance. But then again, there can be something
off-puttingly egotistical about mountaineering and similar extreme pursuits that tempers whatever sympathy we should probably feel for Simpson and
Yates, no matter how dire their situation becomes. Their initial impetus in scaling Siula Grande is well-encapsulated by one critics comment that modern life
is pretty sanitised for a young man growing up in the Western world, where life is as safe and as dull as it ever has been. Hmm speak for yourself, mate. The
challenges of mountaineering are what we live for, Simpson tells us at the start. He feels more alive when pitting himself against the snow-bound wilderness,
delighted at being so far from the clutter of everyday life. Well, if this is their misanthropic, sensation-seeking idea of fun, fair enough that doesn’t make it especially
interesting for the rest of us. On the plus side, at least Simpson and Yates did manage to get themselves out of trouble in the end in too many cases, its taxpayers who
fund costly rescue-operations when middle-class adventurers set out to test their limits, and rapidly find themselves out of their depth a phenomenon which the back-
slapping,
boys-own-story exploits of Touching the Void seems designed only to encourage: in a series of end-titles, were depressingly informed that Simpson and Yates
continue climbing to this day. Well, as the callous schoolyard gag goes: if you break both your legs, don’t come running to me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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by Neil Young