Touching the Void Review
As the old saw goes, I've seen a few films and no mistake...
...but I've never seen anything like Touching the Void before.
In 1985, two young but reasonably experienced British mountaineers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) journeyed to the Peruvian Andes to challenge one of the most formidable peaks in the world: the 21,000-foot behemoth that is Siula Grande. Their goal was straightforward... to conquer the notorious west face of the mountain, a nearly-vertical and highly-complicated ascent that had been attempted many times before by other professional climbers but without any success.
Overconfident and ill-prepared, the two twenty-somethings made the potentially-fatal decision to scale Siula Grande 'alpine style', believing that they could complete the trek in a single two-day push with only such supplies as could fit in their rucksacks (rather than using the traditional method of tackling such a difficult peak, which would involve supplying a series of base camps along the ascent path in advance). Leaving a fellow traveller (Richard Hawking) that they had hooked up with along the way to mind their possessions down below the glacial field, Joe and Simon set off on a doomed escapade that has since become part of mountain-climbing's darkest lore.
If the above were the premise of a Hollywood blockbuster, it would be a case of 'So far, so what?' Indeed, the film industry has not precisely covered itself in glory when it comes to cinematic depictions of mountaineering; such genuinely abysmal offerings as Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit have no doubt been responsible for convincing a large portion of the public to steer well clear of this sub-genre altogether. However, tarring Touching the Void with the same brush as the above pair of brain-dead action pics would be an error of truly criminal proportions. Not least of which because the events shown in Touching the Void, however incredible, actually transpired.
More importantly, however, is how Kevin Macdonald (who also directed the Oscar-winning 2000 documentary One Day in September, chronicling a hostage crisis at the Olympics) chose to tackle this particular real-life story. It would have been easy enough to pen a standard screenplay, take a few liberties with the truth here and there to spice things up, sign one or two A-list actors (apparently Tom Cruise was interested when he first heard the film might be made), and produce some bog-standard action dreck with the label 'based on a true story' plastered across every trailer. All I can say is, thank heavens this didn't happen.
On the other hand, an equally-obvious approach would have been to format the tale as a standard documentary, consisting of a series of key interviews with the survivors and members of the mountain-climbing community peppered with the usual geographic and historic localisations. Whilst certainly a better option than the Hollywood concept, the result may well have lacked dramatic flair and left many viewers struggling to visualise (and therefore fully appreciate) Simpson and Yates' ordeal.
And so Macdonald chose to steer a middle course; whilst Touching the Void is generally referred to as a 'documentary', technically it would be more accurate to call it a 'docudrama': the film consists of a detail-rich and jaw-droppingly frank recounting of the disaster by the principals (via facial close-ups in usual 'talking heads' style) interleaved with an deftly-executed reconstruction of precisely what happened during that fateful week in 1985 (with the three men portrayed by professional actors). While some readers out there - all too familiar with the prevalence of cheesy 're-enactments' from TV programmes - may suspect this method of being too distracting for use in a proper film, allow me to reassure you that in this case the gestalt is far stronger than the sum of its parts.
You may wonder why I have only given the barest introduction to the events depicted in Touching the Void (indeed, the two paragraphs near the top of this review probably cover only the first 5 minutes or so of the show's 107-minute running time). If I seem to be tiptoeing around the subject here, it is primarily because I don't wish to dilute the staggering impact that this film will have upon first-time viewers. It's not actually an attempt to avoid spoilers because Touching the Void doesn't have them in the traditional sense of the word. By his choice of presentation, Kevin Macdonald has made it clear from the outset that both Simpson and Yates survived the catastrophe that was Siula Grande. (After all, the very first voice you hear during the opening credits is Simpson's, and of the two climbers, his plight was by far the more dire. Not to mention that many people out there will already be familiar with the eponymous bestseller on which the film was based - winner of the National Outdoor Book Awards' best literature category - which was of course written by Joe in the wake of their disastrous expedition.)
I imagine that a few people will read the above and immediately retort, 'If I know they made it down OK, then why should I bother watching the film?' Alas, this would be completely missing the point; you could take a random browse through the top 10% of Hollywood's 'psychological thrillers' and 'disaster/rescue movies' (with all of their contrived plot twists and last-minute shocker endings) and still not find anything quite as suspenseful and compelling as Touching the Void. This isn't despite the entire film being narrated solely by Joe, Simon, and Richard... it's because of it.
It's a uniquely peculiar sensation that this film manages to engender in the viewer: a sense of mounting doom, an understanding of the impossibility of Joe and Simon's situation, and a horrible conviction that all hope is genuinely lost is somehow maintained in parallel with the recognition (intellectually, if nothing else) that of course the lads survive in the end. That this sort of emotional freefall can even be sustained for 107 minutes is nothing short of remarkable. That it is sustained without resorting to the sort of deliberate misdirection, tired hero clichés, and tugging of heartstrings that are oft employed to this end is frankly astounding.
Which brings us to one of Touching the Void's key strengths: the mind-boggling honesty of its narrators. Acknowledging for the moment that only two men in absolutely superb physical condition could ever have made it out of that particular disaster alive, it's gratifying to hear not even the faintest hint of hubris in their voices. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates do not consider themselves to be heroes. They don't perceive their actions on Siula Grande were brave, courageous, or even particularly resourceful. They take no pride in the fact that they have become legends in mountaineering circles. They both recognise and admit quite openly that it was their lack of research and preparation that allowed an already bad situation to become exponentially worse, and Joe in particular considers himself lucky to be alive.
But most importantly, in a case like this you would expect all three men to try to put a slightly better spin on, if not their actions, then at the very least their states of mind when describing such a harrowing event. You know, something to make them look a little bit better, seem a trifle more noble, or perhaps merely to displace some of the blame for how things went. Not one of them does this. (And I know I said earlier that you need not worry about spoilers in this write-up, but if you have somehow managed thus far to avoid hearing the best-known and most-publicised aspect of this real-life story - the 'hook', if you will - and wish to remain in the dark until you see the film, then please skip the next paragraph.)
The most astounding example of this has to be Simon's utter candour when discussing the ethical dilemma of cutting the rope. For those who don't already know, whilst the climb of the west face of Siula Grande proved far more challenging than either Joe or Simon had expected, it was only on their descent from the peak that one tragedy led to another, culminating in Simon having to make a life-or-death choice to sever the rope that bound his partner to him... a decision for which he was nearly hounded out of mountaineering altogether and the reason Joe wrote Touching the Void in the first place, in defence of Simon's actions. That 17 years later, Simon calmly states on camera that upon realising that he had a Swiss Army knife in his pack (and knowing that sooner or later he would be dragged off the cliff by the weight of his partner, whom he had no way of helping) he decided 'fairly quickly' to cut the rope, is just an admission that you would never expect anyone to make in a million years. Similarly, Richard confesses - as the days dragged by with no sign of Joe or Simon's return - that he began to hope (as he assumed by this point that something had gone very wrong with their climb) if only one came back, that it would be Simon (as he hadn't developed a rapport with Joe). For Joe's part, he reveals that (as an atheist who had been raised a Catholic) he had often wondered if his conviction that there was no afterlife would crumble in the face of certain death... and discovered to his surprise that the notion of prayer never once occurred to him during the length and breadth of his ordeal.
Of course, intriguing narrative segments alone do not make for great cinema. Fortunately, Touching the Void is graced with absolutely magnificent cinematography and very competent performances by the actors cast for the dramatic reconstruction. Part of the reason the latter melds so seamlessly with the interview clips is no doubt Kevin Macdonald's decision to reduce the actors' dialogue to an absolute minimum. This serves two key purposes: 1, it allows the narrative provided by the real Simpson, Yates, and Hawking to flow very naturally over the on-screen action; and 2, it permits the actors (particularly Brendan Mackey, who plays Joe, and Nicholas Aaron, as Simon) to concentrate on conveying emotions via facial cues and body language rather than attempting to imitate the speech styles of the men they portray. Of course, Macdonald is savvy enough to intercut this with the real thing, switching at appropriate moments to the expressions that etch themselves across the Joe and Simon's faces as they tell their tale in the on-camera interview segments.
Finally, the production team's dedication to realism is in plain evidence throughout Touching the Void. (And if you have any doubts of this, by all means check out the three featurettes on this DVD.) Not only is a good part of the film shot on location in Peru (yes, all of the wide-angle and establishing shots are of none other than Siula Grande), but the remaining bits of footage (anything so close-up as to obscure the identity of the peak in question) were all filmed in the Alps. In other words, there are no sets used in Touching the Void... ignoring the interview bits (which were obviously recorded in a studio), all of the 'reconstruction' segments were performed in actual mountaineering locales (though with simulated weather conditions, naturally!). My background research for this write-up led me to a few mountain-climbing forums on the Web, and in every case the consensus amongst these communities is that this is the first film to ever realistically depict the experience of mountaineering. High praise, I think you will agree.
Before I press on to the more technical aspects of this review, I will allow myself one brief rant against the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America, sort of the United States' answer to the BBFC). As you may have noticed from the sidebar, this is the Region 1 release. And the MPAA have given it an 'R' rating. For those of you who may not be familiar with the US system, an 'R' rating means not only that no one under the age of 18 is permitted to see the film in the cinemas or purchase the DVD in the shops, but also that it will receive reduced playtime overall... as foreign films have a hard enough time getting aired outside of 'arthouse cinemas' in the US without having the potential audience diminished in advance by a spurious classification.
The Region 2 release of this same title is rated '15', and the closest equivalent classification in the States would be a 'PG-13' rating, which I think would have been vastly more reasonable for the content, allowing teenagers the opportunity to view a genuinely moving film and one that many people find inspirational. But they are denied this opportunity by the MPAA's usual inane reasoning: namely, that hearing a handful of curse words uttered non-gratuitously at entirely-appropriate moments (namely, when the protagonist is gripped by despair, facing a near-hopeless situation) is somehow more damaging to a teenager's psyche than, for example, all the casual violence and irresponsible behaviour that passes for entertainment in many 'PG-13'-rated Hollywood productions. Grrr. (Ah, there, I feel better now.)
Touching the Void is presented in gorgeous 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, having been shot primarily on 35mm but with bits and pieces recorded on digital video. I personally think the film received a wonderful transfer (it looks far better on the TV than these screenshots manage to convey), but no doubt some of you out there will protest 'But there's all that snow!', worrying about a reduced colour palette and dicey contrast levels. So really... trust me on this one, the production team took this into account when they filmed it, and the authoring lab took it into account when they encoded the DVD. Colours are extremely vivid where they occur (as in Joe and Simon's climbing gear, or the lake near their base camp) and the white of the snow has good detail in it and never overpowers the picture. You also have to bear in mind that it's not all wide-shots here: in particular there are many close-ups in both the interview segments and the dramatic reconstruction itself, and these feature perhaps even greater facial detail than you might honestly care for.
I wish I could say that everything was perfect and hand this DVD a video score of '10', but alas there is one very minor complaint... whilst black levels are solid and deep, some of the low-light (i.e. not pitch black) segments - such as the extended sequence where Joe finds himself trapped in an icy chasm - suffer from evident noise in the form of a fine (but quite persistent) grain. These bits don't actually detract from the high levels of detail found throughout the production, but they are a modest flaw and have to be mentioned.
Similar to the picture quality (albeit not quite as impressive), the audio in Touching the Void is rock-solid (no pun intended). Surprisingly for a documentary, we are provided with a full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. Unsurprisingly for a documentary, the soundtrack spends much of its time addressing only the front soundstage. I'm sure some will view this as a flaw, but I find it hard to complain when the sound in this film is so bloody crisp and detailed. The way I see it, you have to remember that a documentary is dialogue-driven (even if this particular one has a lot of action thrown in during the 're-enactments')... and as such, there isn't always going to be much use for the rear speakers in your home cinema setup.
I'm just happy with how, during the on-camera interview segments, it almost sounds like Joe, Simon, and Richard are sitting in the same room with me. (The audio really does have superb fidelity.) As for the sweeping cinematic bits, well of course you hear the high winds whipping around you, the crunch of snow under their boots, the staccato clink of their picks against the ice, their occasionally laboured breathing, and so on. But what's really gives the audio that little extra 'oomph' are the subtle touches, like the maddening sound of water just out of reach when Joe is desperately thirsty, or the intentionally-murky strains of 'Brown Girl in the Ring' filtering in and out when the song gets lodged in his head during the later stages of his delirium. ('Bloody hell, I don't want to die to Boney M!' easily pole-vaults into the annals of the Greatest Film Quotes of All Time.)
The music is also very nicely handled throughout, with excellent stereo separation (although, yes, all from the front again). One very minor failing comes in the low-frequency arena; there just isn't a lot for your subwoofer to do during this production. Overall, very good sound but nothing that really takes best advantage of the DD 5.1 mix.
Menus & Extras
This disc features very straightforward widescreen menus with no frills to speak of (no animation, no sound); the flip-side of this is that they are super-efficient, offering fast access times to the film, setup screen (offering a choice of English, Spanish, or no subtitles), scene access menu, and special features page. (Besides, since when do documentaries need fancy DVD menus?)
Now, you'll have to steel yourself for a moment's disappointment upon reaching the extras sub-menu; there are only four entries available. Whilst I'm sure this sounds terribly meagre, the good news is that the special features make up for in quality what they lack in quantity. Unlike the usual dross that gets jammed onto many DVD releases nowadays, the extras on Touching the Void actually add to your understanding and appreciation of the film. (Shocking concept, I know!)
Be forewarned that the Region 2 release (as far as I can tell) has identical content to the R1 one I am reviewing here... except for the 'Making of...' featurette, which it lacks. I'm not entirely sure why this extra didn't make it onto the R2 disc as it was evidently available in time for that release, but c'est la guerre, I suppose. If it's any consolation to those of you who have already purchased the R2 DVD (or are considering doing so in order to save some dosh), there is a substantial amount of overlap in content between Making Touching the Void and Return to Siula Grande, so don't despair... I'd say that you're only losing at most 15 minutes of additional material.
Both of the above featurettes are approximately the same length (around 23-24 minutes each, with Return to Siula Grande being the marginally longer of the two) and were recorded during the pre-production and early stages of the shoot of Touching the Void. Very similar in look and feel, both are shot in 4:3 (possibly originally having been intended to air as promotional pieces on television) and show Simpson and Yates being brought in to act as consultants for the film. (Although, interestingly, the two men also acted out some of the scenes which make it into the 'reconstruction'... although only the very distant wide-shots, and only a few of these.) What they convey best is how odd the experience is for the both of them. Interestingly, whilst Joe Simpson is clearly very emotionally affected by being back at Siula Grande (and at one point visibly has a panic attack at being in precisely the location of his greatest peril 17 years before), Simon Yates grows colder and more detached as the featurettes progress, curiously claiming that coming back to that place holds no great significance for him. Perhaps the two men simply have different ways of dealing with what happened to them, but Simon does come across worse in these two extras than he does in the film itself.
Another solid special feature is What Happened After?, and at about a dozen minutes long it's a thoughtful response to all those white-knuckle viewers who weren't satisfied with the few paragraphs of text that conclude the film itself. Anyone wondering 'How did Simon and Richard get Joe out of there?' or 'Was the Peruvian health system sympathetic to his plight?' or 'Did Joe's parents take a dim view of Simon when the two got back to Old Blighty?' (and so on) will find the answers they are seeking in this great little piece, which by the way is - like Touching the Void - presented in anamorphic widescreen and DD 5.1.
Last (and, yes, least) is the original theatrical trailer for the film, which certainly would have got me interested in seeing the film had UGC ever bothered to air the trailer. It's also given the anamorphic treatment and looks superb. But obviously it can't hold a candle to the other extras on this DVD.
Touching the Void is by far the most gripping (and horrifying) film I've seen in recent memory. This year alone it has won such accolades as 'Outstanding British Film of the Year' at the BAFTAs and 'Best Film of the Year' from the Evening Standard British Film Awards. It featured prominently in both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and has since surpassed Bowling for Columbine as the highest-grossing documentary in the UK. You owe it to yourself to find out why. Whilst obviously it's preferable to view it in the cinema (as I originally did), it nonetheless makes the transition to the small screen in excellent style, so don't be put off from picking up the DVD if you haven't had the chance to see this spellbinding film yet; the title is set for release tomorrow (15 June 2004).