Brokeback Mountain Review

Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet in Wyoming in 1963. Impoverished young rednecks looking for work, they're hired by a sheep farmer (Randy Quaid) to look after his flock on Brokeback Mountain. The two men take a while to bond. Jack is a hearty fellow but Ennis keeps himself very much to himself. After much hard work on Jack's part, Ennis eventually warms to his companion and they become friends. Over whiskies one night, Ennis opens up about his childhood as an unloved orphan. Jack, it turns out, has also led an unhappy life. That night, in the tent they share, Jack makes a pass at Ennis and Ennis responds. They have rough, passionate sex. The next morning Ennis feels terribly guilty about what they've done but not guilty enough to stop doing it. Their affair continues until the job ends and then the two young men go their separate ways.

It's 1967 when they see each other again. They're both married now, Ennis to his longtime sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he's had three daughters and Jack to Lureen (Anne Hathaway), the spoiled daughter of a farm machinery tycoon. What both their lives are lacking is the passion they shared during their time on Brokeback Mountain. So Jack tracks down his former lover with a view to continuing their relationship. Ennis is easily convinced and soon they're taking regular fishing trips together. But how long can they keep their forbidden affair a secret from their families and from a society in which indiscrete homosexuals are killed?

Despite what you may have read, Brokeback Mountain isn't the first mainstream Hollywood film about a gay love affair. That I believe was 1982's Making Love, which starred Twin Peaks' sheriff Michael Ontkean as a married man who fell in love with Harry Hamlin from LA Law. Making Love flopped and faded into obscurity because, judging by the reviews, the two leads were uninteresting. That film's only distinction was the men's sexuality. Brokeback Mountain doesn't fall into the same trap. It succeeds because it tells a universal story of a love that wasn't meant to be.

In fact Brokeback Mountain isn't really a film about homosexuality, it's a study of a doomed relationship. That this relationship is between two men is a side issue. A lot of reviewers are describing Jack and Ennis as lovers tragically kept apart by an intolerant world but I don't agree. I think in a more open society these men would have lasted a few months together tops. Only one of them is truly in love and only one appears to be genuinely gay. Ironically, the illicit nature of their relationship turns it from a turbulent fling into decades of secrecy and frustration.

Forbidden love can seem stronger than it really is. Imagine if Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson had given in to their feelings for each other in Lost In Translation. Imagine if they'd flown home together, left their spouses and shacked up. Once their passion had cooled into a long-term relationship, would the enormous age difference that didn't matter in that Tokyo hotel have become an issue? Would Johansson have become bored dating a fiftysomething man? Would Murray have kept his young lover at arm's length like Steve Martin does Clare Danes in the under-rated Shopgirl?

In the case of Ennis and Jack, society's disapproval is certainly not the only factor pushing them apart. Financial and social status play their role. As the years pass, Jack starts making good money as a salesman for his father-in-law. He lives a comfortable suburban life and he finds it much more convenient to slip away and indulge his needs than Ennis, who works long, hard hours as a farmhand for a meagre salary. Jack becomes frustrated with Ennis constantly being away at work while Ennis grows to resent Jack's dropping in when he feels like it.

Then there are the personalities of the men themselves. They're very different from one another. Ennis is a tightly coiled loner with a lot of anger underneath his quiet, mumbling exterior. He may not actually be gay. After all, heterosexuals do sometimes fall in love with people of their own sex. His feelings appear to be for Jack alone, not for his own sex in general. Perhaps Jack was the only person who could break through his walls and perhaps this accounts for the strength of his emotions.

Ennis is certainly much more in love with Jack than Jack is with Ennis. Jack is obviously a gay man, one who has accepted his sexuality and come to terms with his need for a double life, something that gnaws at Ennis. Jack's needs are more physical than emotional. He's the only one of the couple who considers sleeping with other men. He's the one in control.

We learn these things over time. This is a slow-burning film, perhaps one that burns too slowly in its first act. The early scenes on Brokeback Mountain keep you at arm's length - it took me a while to be absorbed by the film. There's an awful lot of screen time in which nothing much happens, then the sex scene arrives seemingly out of nowhere. I'd like to have known the characters a little better before they jumped on each other and I'd have liked there to have been a bit more preparation for what happens between them.

I wonder, did director Ang Lee intend the sex scene to come as a surprise? Were we not supposed to know the characters were gay going in? If this was the case, it was a mistake. Brokeback Mountain was released on a tidal wave of hype centering on its characters' homosexuality. The press dubbed it "gay cowboy movie". Incidentally this is not a good description of the film or even an accurate one. The two men are looking after sheep, not cows so strictly speaking, it should be the "gay shepherd movie".

Don't get me wrong; Brokeback Mountain does pull you in. Working from a fine script by Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Terms Of Endearment), based on a short story by E Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Ang Lee shows the same skill for observing people that he demonstrated in 1997's The Ice Storm. Forget his hit and miss sojourn into action films; Lee's real gifts are for close-up drama and wry comedy. Bizarrely, this tragic love story has a lot more laughs than Lee's superhero blockbuster Hulk. The power struggle between Jack and his pompous father-in-law over Thanksgiving dinner is enormously funny.

Heath Ledger deserves all the plaudits he's been receiving for his portrayal of Ennis. It's powerful work, a million miles from the affable romantic heroes he usually plays. Jake Gyllenhaal is also very impressive in a subtler way. He personifies the charm and vulnerability that makes Ennis love Jack while quietly suggesting there's a manipulative side to his character.

The two men are ably supported by four excellent actresses. Michele Williams from Dawson's Creek and Anne Hathaway from The Princess Diaries are note-perfect as the men's wives, women coping with emotionally absent husbands in different ways. Linda Cardellini (Velma from the Scooby-Doo films) is memorable as a waitress who comes on to Ennis and there's a very funny supporting turn by Anna Faris as a motor-mouthed friend of Lureen. She steals her scene here just as she stole her scenes in Lost In Translation and Just Friends. In between Scary Movie sequels, Faris is fast becoming one of the most interesting character actors in American cinema.

Visually and aurally, Brokeback Mountain is a gorgeous film. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is a feast for the eyes - it carries that slow first act - and the score by Gustavo Santaolalla is the most effective film music I've heard in a long time. It's been a while since a movie score has remained playing in my head all the way home from the cinema.

Overall

8

out of 10

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