Directed by Kevin
Macdonald, based on the book by
Produced by John Smithson
Featuring Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Richard Hawking,
Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey
Opening at the Broadway
(out of four)
One of the recurring visual motifs in “Touching
the Void” is that of the camera pulling back
from its mountain-climbing subjects to a wide shot
of the mountain or landscape they’re on. As
the shot widens, the climbers go from prominent figures
to tiny, then invisible specks lost in a monstrous
expanse of nature.
These shots hammer in the harrowing helplessness
of the experience portrayed in the film, which is
so rich in re-enactments that if it weren’t
for the interviews explaining things, the film would
be a dramatic work instead of a documentary.
The film details a disastrous trip in 1985 to climb
a wall of the Peruvian Andes that had never been
successfully climbed—and hasn’t been
climbed since. Interviews with British climbing partners
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their ground man
Richard Hawking provide all the perspectives of the
prolonged expedition as it unfolded.
Director Kevin Macdonald visually re-creates the
events with extraordinary details and style. His
technique starts off with a somewhat standard documentary
look, although he also gets close-ups of things like
the improbable look of a spike boot stuck in a giant
mountain of ice. Simpson and Yates like mountain
climbing because it’s fun and exhilarating, “except
when it’s not.”
But things gradually get more dramatic as the climbers
begin to make their way down the mountain and run
out of gas to melt their water. Then some ice gives
in and Joe breaks his leg.
The moment he realizes his leg is broken, Joe says,
he realizes that he and Simon are going to die. This
obviously isn’t true, but the film is utterly
mesmerizing as it portrays this urgent, messy situation.
Simon surprises Joe when instead of leaving “to
get help” that wouldn’t arrive, Simon
begins deploying Joe on a rope in a clever, if somewhat
painful process. Then Joe falls off an overhang and
ends up over a dark hole, unable to give Simon slack.
At this point, Simon, who can’t see what’s
happening, has to make a difficult decision that
Joe says he would have made, and cuts joe’s
rope. The next day, both men assume that the other
one is dead and make their own efforts to get down
Stuck in the hole and barely alive, Joe has the more
difficult time getting out. He is an atheist, which
makes his need to live even stronger because even
when he’s dying, he doesn’t fall back
on prayers and believes that this life is it. So
he takes a gamble and makes an effort to descend
further down in the hopes of finding an opening.
Moving injured and malnourished, it’s a wonder
that he made it. Simon and Richard assume he’s
dead while he’s desperately trying to make
it home and the days tick by.
All the interviews take place separately, and we
get very frank discussions about the events and the
various morbid thoughts that each person had. The
film translates Joe’s experience of having
no idea if anyone will be there if he does the impossible
and makes it back to camp.
Macdonald uses various filters, photography techniques
and editing tricks to portray the mind of a body
that’s on the verge of shutting down. At one
point, this horrifying scene is contrasted with a
bad pop song, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” by
Boney M. that begins going through Joe’s head.
There’s a bit of morbid humor when he considers
dying to this horrible song, and it’s recreated
with the peppy fluff playing over disturbing visuals.
It’s rare that films actually place you in
positions as extraordinary as this in a reasonable
matter. “Touching the Void” surpasses
recent films like the fact-based fiction of “Himalayas” because
the ideas that accompany the story are based in existential
dilemma. The people involved have to consider who’s
life is more important and learn who’s urge
to survive is greater. Richard says that he thought
about which one he wanted to come back if only one
of them did.
Simon and Joe put themselves in dangerous situations
for recreation that allows them to feel life. When
this life is endanger, it’s no longer fun,
but it’s revelatory.