Dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2003, UK, Drama/Documentary, 106 mins
Cast: Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron
In 1985 two young mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, set off to climb the previously unscaled West face of Suila Grande, a remote and forbidding peak in the Peruvian Andes. After three arduous days, and not without some difficulty, the climbers reached the summit. But this was just the beginning, rather than the end, of the hardship the two would face both together and alone, on the mountain. As the men began the tricky 21,000-foot descent the weather deteriorated and Simpson fell and broke his leg. Despite Simpson's disastrous injury, Yates proceeded to lower him down the mountain in stages. Yet the situation turned from bad to catastrophic when Yates - blinded and deafened by the blizzard conditions - lowered Simpson over an ice cliff. Unsure of Simpson's plight, without enough strength to pull him back, or enough rope to lower him to safety, and all the time losing his own footing on the slope, Yates was faced with a terrible decision - to allow himself to be pulled over the edge along with Simpson, or to cut the rope which bound him to his partner. Breaking a great mountaineering taboo, Yates cut the rope. The following morning Yates passed a crevasse into which he believed Simpson had fallen to his death, and returned to base camp where he broke the news to Richard Hawking, a friend who had agreed to wait for their return. But Simpson had survived the fall - landing on a ledge within the crevasse. Over the following three and a half days, in great pain and without food and water, Simpson made a miraculous lone descent of the mountain.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (based on the memoir of Joe Simpson) Touching The Void is an incredible and often moving account of adventure and survival. Whilst Macdonald's earlier Oscar winning documentary One Day in September brilliantly recreated the media circus which surrounded the kidnapping and tragic killing of a group of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, his new film tells a very different story, of one man's personal and isolated struggle for life. In keeping with Simpson's elemental experience, Macdonald's film is pared down to the essentials - the mountain, the testimony of Simpson, Yates and Hawking, and well-judged dramatic re-constructions of the key moments in their story.
Filmed on location in Peru and the Alps, Touching The Void opens with aerial establishing shots of the Andes, director of photography Mike Eley conveying both the beauty and loneliness of the vast mountain landscape. In this way we are made to understand the scale of Simpson's feat of survival right at the outset. Simpson has stated that one of his strongest driving forces during his descent Suila Grande was the very human need to tell someone about his ordeal - his great irritation over those days being that he would die without doing so. Having survived it is perhaps not surprising that Simpson felt compelled to relate his lonely experience in a book, and now with the film, he again tells his story. Indeed Macdonald was initially concerned that the fact that Simpson, and also Yates, had spoken and written of their experiences so many times over the last eighteen years might make for flat and unemotional accounts. Macdonald needn't have worried, as the resulting interviews (which provide the backbone of the film) are compelling and full of fascinating revelations. With incredible honesty, Yates speaks of how he considered inventing a more self-gratifying story to tell people about what happened on the mountain. And Simpson's own accounts, of the excruciating pain of being lowered down the mountain with a broken leg, of the breathtaking horror of finding himself entombed in a seemingly inescapable crevasse, and of his escalating delirium as he stumbled and dragged himself down the mountain, have you on the edge of your seat. Despite the deadly serious nature of his story, the undeniably tough-minded Simpson is not without humour - the startling Boney M sequence towards the end of the film, for example, is not to be missed.
Given that we know the outcome of Simpson's story from the beginning, Macdonald manages to maintain a great deal of tension - due in no small part to the sense of immediacy and danger created by the dramatic re-constructions. Having said this, it is the extraordinary interviews, which give Touching The Void its real power. As producer John Smithson has remarked: "It's an epic story and it's about much more than simply mountaineering. It's all about the human spirit: it's simple and powerful."