Triumph after the fall

February 20, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The whole world has come back!" exclaims mountain climber Joe Simpson as he emerges into sunlight from a crevasse beneath the 21,000-foot peak of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. And that's how this simultaneously harrowing and glorious docudrama ultimately makes a viewer feel - as if the air outside has a new taste.

Touching the Void does what only the best nature adventures can do. It inspires wonder at the rough and risky beauty of an unspoiled portion of the Earth and a harsh, tempered joy at the way it can push human strength to its pinnacle.

Based on Simpson's book of the same name about his and Simon Yates' conquest of Siula Grande and their catastrophic descent from it, this picture is a men-against-the-elements saga so thrillingly precise that it's more about mental and emotional toughness than about physical daring and endurance.

Set on "climbing the world," the fit and super-ambitious Simpson and his friend and climbing partner Yates attacked Siula Grande "Alpine Style," which means they made their assault with minimum stock and without base camps. The film's first half-hour offers a swift, tingling account of their gutsy ascent to the summit.

Interspersing present-day interviews with the actual climbers and footage of actors Brendan Mackey (as Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Yates) re-enacting their story in the Andes and the Alps, director Kevin Macdonald achieves a rare blend of visceral force and contemplation. (Dave "Cubby" Cuthbertson and Rory Gregory served as climbing and stunt doubles for Mackey and Aaron, respectively.) Like the climbers, you feel the trivia of the world fall away as they dig into the forbidding West Face of Siula Grande.

Macdonald and his cinematographer, Mike Eley, exult in the otherworldly grandeur of the Andes, yet also keep a clear head. The Andean "flutings" - towering free-form swirls of powdery snow - evoke immediate awe and then horror, as the climbers discover what an obstacle they pose to finding sturdy holds in the mountainside.

The heroes' freewheeling approach generates both excitement and a lurking fear that they won't have sufficient supplies if they meet with disaster, such as enough fuel to boil the water they need to keep hydrated. The combination of contemporary interviews and present-tense action enables Macdonald to incorporate thoughts from the postscript and epilogue of Simpson's book with the main narrative. It's the unusual case where hindsight heightens suspense.

Catastrophe strikes during the descent, when Simpson falls off an ice ledge and shatters a leg. The rest of the film becomes a tribute to the sort of courage under fire that Tom Wolfe celebrated in The Right Stuff when he wrote of test pilots running through checklists in their head before their planes crashed. The amazing thing about test pilots is how quickly they come to their decisions; the amazing thing here is how fiercely the climbers hold to their decisions during long, grim, painful days.

Yates concocts a plan to tie their ropes together and lower Simpson by himself. But when Simpson falls over the edge of a crevasse - out of sight or shouting-range - and begins to drag his partner down with him, Yates cuts the rope. Simpson is so eloquent and Macdonald so visually and dramatically acute that Simpson's plight becomes a universal parable of survival.

The final hour of the film produces one raw poetic revelation after another. Simpson talks of measuring out his escape goals in small portions, speaks not of waking up but "coming to," and confesses his fear of dying alone. And Macdonald comes up with just the right portraiture and composition to convey each truth, large or small, and every spine-chilling frisson.

The film is understated and unexpected throughout. Simpson, for example, is glad he lacks religious faith when he's in dire straits; its absence makes him feel as if he controls his fate. For audiences, two things keep the tension from becoming too excruciating: the presence of the survivors in front of us and the knowledge that in the grip of Macdonald's humane, lucid filmmaking, we're in the best of hands.

Touching the Void

Starring Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Released by IFC

Rating Unrated

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score ****

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