Saddled with the tag "the gay cowboy movie", Brokeback Mountain's marketing has been at pains to downplay the film's homosexual content in favour of presenting the work as a love story.
Rightly so, for Ang Lee's beautiful and subtly directed realisation of Annie Proulx's short story is a grand romantic tragedy that just happens to feature two male protagonists.
This epic yet intimate film tells the tale of ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two drifters seeking summer work sheep herding at a remote Wyoming ranch in 1963. Both men look set for occasional, unspectacular work, middling marriage and families, but they hunger for something beyond all that.
Dispatched to look after sheep on the majestic Brokeback Mountain, the two men, initially job market competitors, each begin to care about the other - in part as they are the only humans around. Then on one night, their relationship takes a whole new course.
On returning from the mountain after summer, the two men are scarcely able to articulate what they want to say. The rest of the world, personified by rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), feels like an invasion, and while Twist awaits some reassurance, or even any feedback, from Del Mar, the latter is quite unable to reciprocate it.
Four years pass. Twist, back rodeoing in his native Texas, marries decidedly forward rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) and a son follows. Meanwhile in Wyoming, Del Mar marries and has two daughters with childhood sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams). But on both men's minds is the other. One day, Twist heads back to Wyoming and it is clear that love will not be silenced.
The theme of a world changing from comfortable tradition to unknown modernity, an influence on great works from Turner's paintings to Hardy's literature - and even a less subtle cowboy film, All The Pretty Horses - underlies the story. Change in society both as a threat and as a redeemer drives both Del Mar and Twist's actions and how they relate to each other and those around them, giving the romance depth.
Heath Ledger is a revelation. The Australian, a stalwart of bubblegum movies like A Knight's Tale (let us forgive him The Brothers Grimm), grew up in the great outdoors of Down Under and plainly knows a thing or two about riding horses. But in his first love story on the big screen, his portrayal of the ambiguous Del Mar - a character of few words - articulates far more than mere sentences could muster. Del Mar is the personification of the times - the sexual revolution is underway elsewhere, but in rural America tradition and community expectation still govern, and Del Mar's personality is a reflection of the dichotomy.
As the '60s give way to the '70s and the two men grow older, it is Ledger who is utterly convincing as a man double his own age. With a faultless accent and acutely observed movements, it is a performance that announces him as a hitherto unlikely major star. Jake Gyllenhaal is scarcely less impressive for the first half, but as Jack Twist ages, his smooth, pretty boy features take to make-up and prosthetic paunch less easily. Yet he is never less than completely convincing as the extrovert Twist, seeking out new experiences and attempting to satisfy his desires despite the restrictions imposed by marriage, community and his lover's confusion.
As the victims of their husbands' time on the mountain, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway give touching performances. Williams in particular seems to be the moral voice of the film, asking with facial expressions, "What about me?" - a question her troubled husband is quite unable to answer. His inability to come to terms with himself lies at the tragic human heart of the story. As Del Mar says to Twist: "If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it." It's a heartbreaking line.
Ang Lee is already well known as an eclectic film maker. From Sense and Sensibility to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and on to Hulk, the Taiwanese director has spent his directing career genre-hopping to his heart's content, setting himself up as the foreign observer of other peoples' stories. With its innovative stop-motion technology, Crouching Tiger gathered up fistfuls of awards, but his perfectly paced Brokeback Mountain is, in its way, every bit as deserving of plaudits.
Brokeback Mountain is on so many levels a beautiful, haunting film. It's more than a love story, more than a gay film, more than a western. Profoundly moving, intimate and memorable, this is the movie that redefines what love is on the silver screen and confirms Ang Lee as a director at the height of his considerable powers. That it is the first mainstream movie to feature gay characters at its core rather than as window dressing makes it all the more commendable.