By Jeffrey M. Anderson
It's said that people climb mountains because they're there, but that's giving them too much credit. We have always equated height with greatness, elevation with godliness. We climb mountains literally to feel above it all.
Perhaps Joe Simpson and Simon Yates considered that when they traveled to Peru in 1985 to conquer a 21,000-foot peak, or perhaps not. Their problem wasn't getting to the top, but getting back down. During descent, Simpson broke his leg. Yates attempted to rescue him, but the efforts to slide Simpson down the mountain with their combined 300-foot-long rope resulted in him hanging over a cliff in space, with no way of communicating his conundrum back up to Yates.
Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary One Day in September, appropriately decided to work in the old-fashioned and slightly controversial "docudrama" format to bring us their story. (Errol Morris' 1988 docudrama "The Thin Blue Line" received equal amounts of praise and disdain.) Simpson and Yates act as talking heads, telling their story while actors Brendan Mackey as Simpson and Nicholas Aaron as Yates venture out onto the cold mountainside to act it out for us.
This approach makes "Touching the Void" a much leaner work than a conventional fictionalized version would have been. Since we have the actual guys sitting right in front of us, we know they both survived this trek. But that does nothing to lessen the film's immeasurable suspense. As the fictional Simpson painfully works his way down the mountain by himself, the real Simpson's narration makes the journey far more potent than any other interpretation would have been. He successfully draws us inside his head, making us feel his intense pain, thirst, desperation and disorientation far more effectively than the visuals alone could have.
The film should come with a warning label: Not for the squeamish or weak of heart. But for those who can take it, "Touching the Void" could provide you with a new lease on life. Indeed, with his new film Macdonald has achieved, if not physical elevation, then at least spiritual soaring.
**** out of ****
(106m | R)