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The Englishman Who Went Up A Mountain But Came Down Ill

Growing up in a rather flat part of the UK, mountaineering never really featured on my list of things to try. In fact it never really impinged on my youth at all, with the exception of an attempt by (I think) Chris Bonnington's daughter to climb the Old Man of Hoy1 on live breakfast TV. The highlight of the event was the intrepid young woman being vomited upon by a startled gull, and even that was hardly an advertisement for the pastime.

The same could probably be said for the astonishing drama-documentary Touching The Void, directed by Kevin Macdonald, which is - to say the least - gruelling, but still intensely watchable. (Also a rare example of a British Film Council production - in this case, in association with the now-defunct studio Film Four - that doesn't make you want to gouge your own eyes out.)

Based on a barely-credible true story, this is the tale of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young Englishmen who in 1985 decided to attempt the unclimbed west face of the Andean peak Siula Grande. (Ominous captions and music, not to mention Simpson's weirdly assymmetrical nostrils, make one very sure from the start that All Will Not Go To Plan.) Attempting the ascent in the ballsy Alpine style, one is initially wrong-footed when the duo get to the top relatively easily. However, as Simpson points out in his narration, 80% of accidents happen on the way back down, and so it proves here.

After beginning the descent, the duo quickly become lost (I must confess to not quite understanding how one can become confused as to which direction is down, but I am an indoorsy type as you can probably tell) and run out of gas with which to brew their tea. But things get even worse as Simpson falls off the mountain and badly breaks his leg. (I defy anyone not to squirm at Simpson's clinical description of exactly what happened to the various bones in his shin and knee.) You'd've thought that would be quite enough bad luck, but then Yates' attempts to lower his partner down the mountainside to safety hit a snag. In the dark, he accidentally lowers Simpson off a cliff. Simpson is unable to pull himself back up, and - even worse - finds himself dangling over an ice crevasse. Yates, rapidly losing his grip on the slope, and not knowing what's happened to Simpson, decides to cut the rope and let his partner fall...

This film succeeds so well because it combines two disparate elements with consummate skill. The actual reconstruction of events on and around the mountain is remarkable. Simpson and Yates are both played by actors - neither of whom are particularly close lookey-likees, if we're honest, but they both spend so much time wrapped up in mountaineering gear it doesn't really matter - but most of the climbing certainly seems to be done 'for real'. Just getting a camera crew into some of the places this film does is an achievement in itself and for all that it's obviously a horrible place, the mountain is amazingly beautiful. (Although - and a sign of the times, this - any sight of a really big mountain on a cinema screen these days just makes me expect Ian McKellen to go by in a pointy hat.)

Coupled to this are talking head accounts of the story from the real life Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (and also some bloke who was hanging around base camp while they were up on the mountain). Both are clearly talking unscripted, and while this leads to some amusing infelicitudes in their language ('We had two 150-foot ropes,' says Simpson informatively at one point, 'and by tying them together we got a 300-foot rope with a knot in the middle', while later on Yates weighs in with 'Nothing continued to happen') it's of immeasurable aid in bringing the story to life. It is incredibly gripping - and were it not for Simpson's actual presence, I'd've been willing to swear he couldn't possibly have survived.

I personally wouldn't want to go up a mountain with either of the guys, to be honest, but one's sympathies are inevitably more with Simpson (if only because he isn't the one who buggered off back to base camp). The effects of their experiences are easily discernible in the men as they are interviewed - Simpson seems secure, knowing how he'll react in an extreme crisis, while Yates... I'm not sure, but I thought I sensed a little guilt.

In any case, this is a top-notch piece of work, engrossing, startling, and immediate, shot through with moments of subtle humour and humanity, and entirely deserving of the awards it has won. Touching The Void makes a drama out of a crisis in the best possible way. Recommended.

The Old West

From one film with a cold mountain in it, to another which is a bit like Cold Mountain. You can tell a lot about a film from the audience it attracts - Touching The Void had a lot of rough-hewn, imposing types in waxy jackets in the theatre, clearly people more used to abseiling down the Cairngorms than checking out Affleck's latest. And the audience for Kevin Costner's Open Range had a lot of older people in it, people who I suspect only normally go to the multiplex on senior citizen's afternoon (free tea and biscuits).

The only reason I can think for Open Range's appeal to the elder generation is simply that it's a Western - The Genre That Refuses To Die. It's a fairly old-fashioned Western, too, a bit of a throwback to the genre's pre-Kurosawa-and-Leone heyday, when the films were about more than just cynicism and death.

This is the story of Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Costner himself), two itinerant cowboys who wander those rolling prairies driving their livestock wherever they choose, assisted by a couple of sidekicks who you just know are in for a rough time. And so it proves, as a chance sortie into the nearest town lands one of the sidekicks in jail and draws our heroes to the attention of evil Oirish cattle-baron Baxter (Michael Gambon, who's actually not in the film very much at all). It's soon obvious that Baxter wants to put Boss and Charlie permanently out of business - but being the kind of men they are, he's going to have a fight on his hands...

This is a very Kevin Costner kind of film in all sorts of ways. For one thing, the Western is a genre he's returned to over and over again thoughout his career, and for another - well, put it this way, I'm prepared to bet that no-one's ever come out of a Costner-directed movie and said 'You know, that was pretty good, but it was too short'. Open Range has an extremely thin story to sustain a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, especially considering there's very little action, but Costner pulls it off rather impressively.

This he manages to do by concentrating on character and mood, with rather enjoyable results. Admittedly the only beneficiaries of this are Boss, Charlie, and Sue (Annette Bening), a townswoman they befriend - Gambon and his lackeys remain cardboard cutouts - but the two men at least are in every scene, making it a worthwhile concentration. The film treats them rather equivocally - they're not above pistol-whipping, back-shooting and glassing anyone who gets in their way, but on the other hand when their dog gets shot they are both nearly reduced to tears (an unintended moment of bathos). To be honest, they're both examples of the kind of idealised rugged individualist that NRA members across the midwest have posters of pinned to their fallout-shelter walls, and as such should be at least alarming and at worst openly offensive to anyone else. But Duvall and Costner are both quietly charismatic performers and raise the characters well beyond the level of stereotype.

It's clear that Costner laments the loss of the Western as a mainstay of Hollywood cinema, and Open Range does its best to remind the audience of what it's missing - the broad canvas, the elegantly simple morality, the iconography and the imagery. The film looks beautiful, but unfortunately it's such an archetypal story that it comes across as rather old-fashioned. There's a Josey Wales-ish subplot about Charlie trying to come to terms with his past as a killer, and the bizarre accent of one of the cattlehands may be a stab at historical realism (either that or a homage to Horst Bucholz's German-accented Mexican in The Magnificent Seven) but apart from that this could have been made in 1954. The action is quite well staged and not nastily graphic, but like everything else it does drag on a little bit longer than it needs to.

In the end how much you'll like Open Range probably depends on how much you like old-school pre-Eastwood Westerns. It's a film about manhood, and friendship, and sticking to your principles and doing the right thing by those around you. It should be incredibly hokey and embarrassing, and it is a bit, but performances, direction, and cinematography combine to make it very satisfyingly reminiscent of the cinema of a less cynical age. I liked it a lot.

The Awix


25.03.04 Front Page

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1A telegenic column of rocks lurking off the British coast somewhere.

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