February 26, 2004

Touching the Void

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Seldom have I cringed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat as often as I did while watching Touching the Void. A masochistic viewing exercise, the film has the aesthetic beauty of having bamboo shoots driven underneath your fingernails.

But for an hour and forty-six minutes, I was unable to look away.

The latest work from British director Kevin MacDonald, Touching the Void recounts the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young and fit British mountain climbers who, in 1985, undertook a climb that has since become part of climbing legend. In the tradition of tragic hubris, the two attempted to scale the Siula Grande — a virtually unclimbable mountain in the Peruvian Andes — without stopping and resupplying along the way.

While the pair successfully reached the summit, a whiteout on the return journey caused disaster. Losing his grip, Simpson fell and shattered his leg, driving his shin up through the kneecap. Being alone and out of supplies, Simpson was, effectively, dead. Yet Yates did not abandon him, instead slowly lowering his partner down the mountain. This plan failed, however, when Simpson slid over a ledge and was left suspended above a drop of unknown height, with Yates being the only thing anchoring him in the air. Realizing he was at an impasse, Yates was faced with being pulled over to his death or cutting the rope and saving himself.

MacDonald recounts the story through interviews with Yates and Simpson and dramatizations by both professional climbers and actors (Brendan Mackey as Simpson and Nicholas Aaron as Yates). Although we know that Simpson survives, it doesn’t matter. MacDonald uses no fabricated dialogue or melodrama — none is needed. Instead, he drives us beyond the ascertainable threshold of physical and emotional suffering. Both Yates and Simpson are tossed into personal hells. By some miracle, Simpson survived his 150-foot fall only to find himself on a ledge inches from a crevasse. Alone, severely dehydrated, and in unimaginable pain, he was left with a choice: to wait and die, or use his remaining rope to lower himself into the unknowable depths of the crevasse. Yates had to descend the rest of the mountain with the mental torture of his decision, certain that he had sent his friend to his death.

The camera work is laconic and unemotional, maintaining an objective eye for only the necessary elements. At no point does MacDonald pervert the survivalist story into a Lifetime chamber drama of spiritual rebirth. There is only man and the mountain here, with God never making a cameo. Filmed largely in a cinema verit