Touching the Void
review by Elias Savada, 23 January 2004

So, maybe you read the 1988 international bestseller Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, the heart-rending true-life tale of the near death experience he and fellow mountain climber Simon Yates experienced atop the 21,000-foot, extremely isolated Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andres. And maybe a few of you remember reading that Sally Fields' Disney-based production company Fogwood Films and Castle Rock's Alan Greisman optioned the book back in 1997 as a possible Tom Cruise vehicle (with a believable British accent?), where after the project went into turnaround (i.e., Hollywood limbo-land, where it should stay) as of September 2000. And even fewer of you have actually climbed a mountain. Touching the Void will make you think hard about taking a big walk up the wild side of any stack of rock as daunting as that shown here.

But, damn, until you witness the bone-crushing, blue-lipped, ice-encrusted treatment within which Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) has framed this fiercely entertaining dramatic documentary, you have no idea how exciting and emotionally draining the resulting cinematic climb up and particularly down can possibly be. You will envision their terror, again, that engulfed both Simpson and Yates, maybe not as the nominally interviewed talking heads explaining their action (kept to a educational minimum), but rather as they are seamlessly re-enacted by Brendan Mackay (Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (Yates). Macdonald tensely reconstructs the incredible 1985 climb up and agonizing descent with an edge-of-your-seat urgency that makes you root for their lives and enduring spirit as if your own existence depended on it. Your fingernails will be bitten down to their cuticles--by the person sitting next to you. If you've seen hundreds of E! Entertainment simulated retellings via this Mysteries & Scandals or that True Hollywood Story, you may think you know what Touching the Void might be like as a viewing experience. But you can add up all the impact those shows may have had on your coach potato life and it will pale in comparison to the 106 minutes you spend frozen to your seat watching this engrossing struggle of two human beings over the crushing forces of nature that bear down on them.

So, the two Brits, having ascended a three-and-a-half day climb up the west face of the Siula Grande, with unseen cinéma verité cameramen trekking right beside them, find their climb down a worst case episode of mission impossible, as Simpson misses a step and his lower leg is driven into his kneecap. Unable to walk, crippled in pain, and the weather outside far from delightful--its night time, blistery cold, and you can't see the nose in front of your face--the trip home won't be a walk in the park. There's also no food or water, and dehydration is settling in. Simpson's leg, and confidence, is shattered. When the climbers (and the audience) should be home in a warm bed or cuddled up near a warm fire, instead we're all shivering together, much to the credit of Mike Eley, as director of photography, and Keith Partridge and Simon Wagen for their "climbing photography." And then, as they say, is when the agonizing story really begins.

Combining their separate segments of rope, Yates begins lowering his companion downward in the darkness, 300 feet at a time. The seemingly steady progress is broken when Simpson basically falls of the mountain, dangling in the freezing air and unable to signal his friend. Presuming the worst (it's hard not to under these harsh circumstances), the rope is cut and each climber is left to his own inner strength to remove himself off the frozen landscape and out of their hellish nightmare: Yates on the snowcapped exterior, Simpson from within the mountain's icebound caverns. I doubt that anyone watching the film with me took a breath during these tense, gut-wrenching moments when both men brush up against their own mortality.

Using the actual mountain (briefly, when weather conditions allowed), but generally filming in the Alps, the expedition still proves treacherous to any climber, especially one followed by a film crew that has to deal with its own fiascos, such as frozen cameras, fogged lenses, and just general safety issues when your shooting a film at twenty below zero. To those hardy individuals and rugged individualists (you have to admire them for their sheer lunacy who explore (and film) the tops of the world at threat to their life and limb, Touching the Void is the quintessential document to these dedicated sportsmen and, in the case of those that have now climbed to that highest mountain in the sky, a fitting memorial.

Fear Factor. Survivor. Move over, you minor league adventurers. You want compelling? Climb up to Touching the Void.

Directed by:
Kevin Macdonald

Brandan Mackey
Nicholas Aaron
Joe Simpson
Simon Yates

Written by:
Joe Simpson

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.