Vineberg, Steve, The Christian Century
MOUNTAIN CLIMBING may be one of the few modern dramatic subjects that contain the key elements of Creek tragedy: terror and folly, hubris and courage. You get a staggering sense of all four in Touching the Void, Kevin Macdonald's film of Joe Simpson's book.
Simpson and his friend Simon Yates were the first to climb Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes, and it's a miracle that either of them got out alive. They designed their feat as a "pure climb," eschewing the idea of setting up camps along the route, though they did leave Richard Hawking, a companion they'd made in their trek through Peru, at a base camp at the bottom of the mountain.
At first they were lucky: challenging as the ascent was--across vertical fields of almost sheer ice amid mercurial weather--it proceeded according to plan. But on the way down the men ran out of fuel, which prevented them from hydrating themselves with "brew" (melted snow). Then Simpson slipped and broke his leg.
Yates devised a method for lowering his friend down by tying their ropes together. But Simpson fell over the edge of a crevasse, and was swinging in mid-air where his partner couldn't see him (and the force of the wind prevented them from hearing each other's cries). Yates felt he had no choice but to cut the rope.
Both men survived. The film eliminates suspense on this matter by splicing in reminiscences delivered by both Joe (played by Brendan Mackey) and Simon (Nicholas Aaron). (Hawking, playing himself, adds an occasional third perspective.) The story is so harrowing that you're grateful you know the happy ending. Macdonald's approach is highly unusual. He shoots very close in (stunt doubles Dave "Cubby" Cuthbertson and Rory Gregory stand in for the two actors in the action scenes), only rarely pulling back to let us take in the magnificent Andean expanse. He and cinematographer Mike Eley (assisted by Keith Partridge) want us to share the weird, mixed sensation of exposure and claustrophobia, to experience the locked-in physicality of the climb, in which every move takes not only un reasonably intense focus but involves layer upon layer of obstacles--the resistance of snow and ice, thirst, freezing cold, the agony of Joe's injury, the dreadfully slow process necessary to move a few yards or extract a tool from a pack when the weather is at its most violent. …