Touching the Void
directed by Kevin Macdonald
starring Joe Simpson, Simon Yates
In 1985, two mountaineering partners in their twenties undertook a climb that had never been successfully completed: the nearly vertical west face of the 21,000-foot Andean mountain Siula Grande, one of the world’s most formidable peaks. Despite harsh weather conditions and an ascent far more challenging than they had anticipated, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made it to the summit. When they set off on the descent, however, their real troubles began. Ultimately Yates was faced with the dilemma of cutting the rope linking him to his partner, saving himself but presumably sending Simpson to his death.
Touching the Void is the documentary film of this fateful Peruvian excursion, the stuff of legend (and fiery debate) in the mountain climbing community. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), the film has picked up several deserved awards, including Outstanding British Film of the Year at the 2004 BAFTAS and Best Film in the Evening Standard British Film Awards 2004. It has fared equally well with audiences, overtaking Bowling for Columbine as the highest grossing documentary in the UK. Across the Atlantic, both the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals gushed about it. For once the hype is justified.
The outcome to Touching the Void is never in question. We know both men survive. The primary feat of Macdonald’s film is that it keeps us in suspense in spite of this — the nail-biting, edge-of-seat, hand-wringing variety. After Joe tumbles into a pitch-black crevasse with his shattered leg, his chances of escape seem almost nonexistent, even as we hear him explain his vacillations between despair and determination. Macdonald maintains this tension by splicing unlabelled, highly realistic dramatic reconstructions — Nicholas Aaron as Yates; Brendan Mackey as Simpson — with the commentary, and leaving the smallest, most potent fraction up to the viewer’s imagination.
Another high point is the honesty. There are no Rescue 911 clichés. Neither Yates nor Simpson fashions himself as a hero. Richard Hawking, the self-professed “third man” who remained at base camp, says he began to realize something had gone horribly wrong on the mountain around the fifth or sixth day. If only one man returned, he hoped it would be Yates. Simpson, a disillusioned Catholic, says his fall into the crevasse naturally gives him the opportunity to resort to prayer. The thought doesn’t even occur to him. When recounting the ethical dilemma of cutting the rope (for which he has faced severe criticism from climbers worldwide), Yates describes matter-of-factly, almost coldly, how quickly he reached his decision when he knew his own survival was at stake. There are, of course, those who will disagree; but I detected only the slightest bit of romanticization throughout. Odds are that the film would have been less appealing without it.
But is it worth owning on home video? That, like Yates’ decision to cut the rope, is debatable. Touching the Void is a very good documentary. The directing and acting are strong. The photography is beautiful. All the same, I’m not sure it merits multiple viewings, which, I think, is why one would own it on DVD or VHS. The cinematic version of this story has no ambiguity that the written autobiographical accounts do not. Macdonald is nothing if not straightforward in his choice of direction and narrative. And so the law of diminishing returns comes into effect. In other words, a rental is probably more in order.
Touching the Void is rated 15 (UK). The DVD includes the original theatrical trailer, a 30-minute ‘making of’ documentary, and a short clip describing the time following the ordeal. For those who have seen the film and formed some opinion of it, some lively commentary has sprung up in the IMDB Touching the Void forum, some of which comes from a very displeased Hawking.
Touching The Void: http://www.pathefilms.co.uk/touching_the_void/