Touching the Void

(Kevin Macdonald, UK , 2003)


The makers of the best action-adventure movies have always known that moral problems in a story amount to little unless they can be dramatised in a breathless moment that combines great danger with the necessity of making a split-second decision.


Think of Cary Grant hanging off a cliff face at Mt Rushmore in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959). He appeals to the enigmatic villain played by Martin Landau to clasp his hand and help him up. After a moment’s thought plays itself out in his steely eyes, Landau applies his shoe to the hero’s hand …


Reality provides a turning-point which is every bit as spectacular and complex in Kevin Macdonald’s dramatic documentary Touching the Void. In the Peruvian Andes, mountaineer Joe Simpson broke a leg. His partner, Simon Yates, decided to lower him down, a section at a time, by rope.


But when Simpson found himself dangling in mid-air, with some frightening crevices far below him, and the fierce, snowy weather ruling out any possibility of communication between the men, Yates had to make a life-and-death choice. He cut the rope and made his own way safely down the mountain, assuming that Simpson had died.


This is exciting stuff, but the best part of the story is yet to come. In enormous pain and with a determination that beggars belief, Simpson crawled across ice, slid down snow and fell over rocks to make his way back to camp. His written account of this descent into hell forms the basis of the film.


As a movie, it is an odd and not altogether satisfying project. There is, of course, no actual footage of the expedition, so Macdonald alternates between close-ups of the participants telling their tale and ‘dramatic re-creations’ featuring Nicholas Aaron as Yates and Brendan Mackey as Simpson. The only thing that separates this technique from the hackneyed, sensationalist re-creations we see on current affairs TV is the scale of the landscape and the grandeur of the cinematography.


The most intriguing aspect of the film is its refusal to gloss over the less palatable aspects of the participants’ personalities. There is resolutely nothing feel-good or warm-and-fuzzy about this story. There is only an individual’s capacity to endure and survive.


One gets little sense of friendship between Simpson and Yates. Their stoic, unspoken bond as they scale the mountain rests on a code of professionalism and teamwork that makes the male heroes of Howard Hawks’ adventure movies look like chatterbox sissies.


Nor is there any sense of any ties to family, friends or intimate partners back home. When Simpson matter-of-factly states that, in the depths and of his physical and emotional anguish, he “did not think about loved ones or anything like that”, viewers laugh nervously – no doubt wondering if there was indeed ever any room for loved ones in his obsessed, mountain-climbing existence.


Audiences will also laugh at the testimony of the third wheel in this tale, Richard Hawking, a ring-in who sat at camp and waited while the others went on their expedition. Hawking comes over as an affably daft guy, rather useless in a crisis. His first reaction when he hears Simpson’s ghostly cry for help is basically to lie there and hope it will go away.


The net effect of Touching the Void is curious: it extols heroism, but it is a kind of heroism that exists in a value-free, snow-filled vacuum. It will leave many viewers (myself included) wondering about the futility of mountain-climbing as an endeavour. Even Simpson's existential encounter with the void comes down to something that Macdonald can only render comically: as he grapples with unconsciousness, the wounded climber is haunted by the memory of a typically garish ‘80s disco tune by Boney M.


MORE mountain climbing: Cliffhanger, Vertical Limit

© Adrian Martin June 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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