Touching The Void

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Climbers are a separate breed. Who else would put themselves in harm's way for the fun of it? Ordinary life must be tantalisingly dull by comparison.

What happened to Joe Simpson on the West Face of Siula Grande, Peru, in 1985 has become one of the most famous survival stories ever told. His account of it became an international best seller, partly because he turned out to be such an evocative writer, but mostly because it's so gut-churningly thrilling.

Hollywood has been sniffing around the body of the text for years. There was talk of Tom Cruise playing Joe at one point and Sally Field's company held the rights for a while, but nothing came of it.

Kevin Macdonald won an Oscar for his documentary, One Day In September, about the tragic events at the Munich Olympics in 1972, beating off a challenge from Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club. His approach to Touching The Void is straightforward in principle and nigh on impossible in practice. That he manages it so spectactularly is a tribute to his tenacity and skill as a filmmaker.

After reaching the summit of Siula Grande, the first to do so ("Snow would freeze on top of you. It took five hours to climb 200 feet"), Simpson and Simon Yates begin their descent. Half an hour later, they are lost in a whiteout. Simpson falls and smashes his right leg. The wind chill is minus 80. He loses half a pint of blood and their gas canister has run out, which means they can't melt snow. Dehydration at these altitudes is a constant threat.

Simon attempts to lower Joe off the mountain in slow, agonising belays, until, in blinding mist, Joe drops over a precipice and hangs there, unable to communicate with Simon, who feels the weight on his rope but does not know what has happened. Eventually, as he finds himself being dragged through unstable snow banks to the cliff edge, he makes the decision to cut the rope and Joe falls 150ft into the jaws of a crevasse.

Macdonald uses the juxtaposition of talking heads - Simpson and Yates in a studio - and a reconstruction of events, using Brendan Mackey as Joe and Nicholas Aaron as Simon, that makes for some of the best, most convincing climbing sequences ever filmed. It is a credit to these actors and the technical crew that they were prepared to put themselves through such a gruelling ordeal for the sake of authenticity. It pays off a thousand fold.

This is a story of courage and bloody minded determination. It is inconceivable that Hollywood, with all its money and special effects, could have improved on what Macdonald achieves on a limited budget and no tricks.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2003
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Docudrama of how Joe Simpson survived being left for dead on a Peruvian mountain in 1985.
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Read more Touching The Void reviews:

David Haviland *****

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Writer: based on the book by Joe Simpson

Starring: Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Ollie Ryall

Year: 2003

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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