MOUNTAIN ENERGY : Kevin MacDonald’s Touching the Void [4/10]

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.
It's an adaptation of Joe Simpson's
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 wouldn't 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 it's clear
that Simpson and Yates would have a mountain-man's 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, it's 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 critic's 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, it's 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, we're informed that our heroes continue climbing. As the callous schoolyard gag goes: if you break both your legs, don't come  running  to me.

Neil Young
5th December 2003 (seen 4th December, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne – press show)

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TOUCHING THE VOID : [4/10] : UK 2003 : Kevin MACDONALD : 106 mins