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TOUCHING THE VOID(director/writer: Kevin Macdonald; screenwriter: from the book by Joe Simpson; cinematographer: Mike Eley; editor: Justine Wright; music: Alex Heffes; cast: Brendan Mackey (Joe Simpson), Nicholas Aaron (Simon Yates), Joe Simpson (Himself), Simon Yates (Himself), Richard Hawking (Himself); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Smithson; IFC Films; 2003-UK)
“An inspiring story about the power of the human will.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September,” an Oscar winner) does more than a credible job in his semi-documentary of reconstructing Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ fateful climb in the Peruvian Andes in June of 1985, getting around the difficult task of filming the event by combining dramatic staged reenactments with actors (Brendon Mackey as Joe & Nicholas Aaron as Simon) and talking-head interviews with the real-life climbers in the studio. The confident twentysomething British mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, set off to climb the steep west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes and its 21,000-foot summit. These experienced climbers were attempting to do what no other climber had done just for the thrill of the experience, and climbed it in the purist way called “Alpine-style.” That is, climbing the mountain in “one great push,” without setting up ropes or base camps along the way.

This film adaptation of Joe Simpson’s nonfiction 1988 bestselling book is about his climbing the mountain and breaking a leg after reaching the top, and somehow while experiencing excruciating pain and frostbite miraculously making it back alive by himself to the base camp. Richard Hawking, not a mountaineer, was someone the two climbers accidentally met in the area and he volunteered to be an extra man looking after the base camp. He seemed to have no vital role except for watching the equipment (surely the role I would have had if I was there).

After overcoming some severe weather including a snowstorm and some dangerous climbing over slippery powder formations, they reached the summit on the third day without incident climbing with a rope that tied them both together. The problem happened on the descent on the next day, as we are informed that eighty percent of the accidents happen on the descent. In a snowstorm Joe lost his grip on a high ridge, fell, and broke his right leg, breaking the fibula and driving it through his kneecap. Things looked dim but Simon attempted to stay with the crippled and pained Joe, and ingeniously figured a way of using the rope to lower him down the slope while both were still tied together. But when Joe fell again, this time over a cliff — and could no longer be spotted, Simon was convinced that Joe was dead and that if he didn’t cut the rope he will also soon be dead. Simon made it down to base camp where he was wracked with guilt that he left his friend behind, even though he was sure that Joe was not alive and he had done the right thing. But Joe was still amazingly alive after this additional fall, and he crawled his way out of the crevasse and made his way down the mountain by sheer will power to the base camp to be rescued by Simon.

In the closing credits it’s said that two years and six operations after breaking his leg, Joe was once again active as a mountain climber. “Touching the Void” puts the best face on those daredevils taking part in what can be termed as an ‘extreme sport,’ where the sport goes beyond the usual boundaries for safety and plays on the edge of life and death scenarios. This harrowing adventure tale plays out as more than a mountaineering film — it’s an inspiring story about the power of the human will, the need of some to forge new boundaries of experience no matter the dangers and the price one must pay for taking such unnecessary risks. It’s not my idea of a sport, but for those with the gumption to do such things I can’t deny that I’m impressed with their courage and endurance and spark for living life to its fullest. This film does a good job at showing that, but to the neglect of saying too much else about the climbers other than their adventurous spirit. The filmmaker also pads some of Joe’s journey down the mountain, as his hallucinations seemed more like filmmaking gimmickry than anything experienced for real. In fact, the film was never warm and cuddly, but filmed more like a marvelous technical accomplishment and a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. Despite being impressed by the climbers and their spirit, I wasn’t as terribly moved as I should have been by their boy’s adventure story or their tragic circumstances. But the film did escape a worst fate, as it narrowly avoided having Tom Cruise be the star. I could just imagine what dangers Hollywood would have had Cruise overcome on the mountain.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”