Touching The Void

UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Nicholas Aaron
Brendan Mackey
Joe Simpson
Simon Yates

directed by
Kevin McDonald

In 1985 Joe Simpson and Simon Yates decided to climb the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000ft mountain in the Peruvian Andes. No one had ever managed to climb this particular face, but with the arrogance of youth the two men (25 and 21 respectively) simply assumed that they were better than those that had gone before.

They climb alpine style, which simply means two men connected by a rope, and reach the summit. However they then have to make their descent, in an impenetrable blizzard. Climbing down a sheer face of powder snow, Joe slips and shatters his leg. They have to press on, so Simon lowers Joe in stages by rope, but after a time Joe falls again, and hangs helpless over a ledge. Simon waits for over half an hour for Joe to take the weight off the rope, but in impossible conditions he can’t see or hear him. Not knowing whether Joe is dead or alive, Simon cuts the rope.

Oscar winner Kevin MacDonald describes his film as a ‘drama documentary’, as it mixes dramatised action with interviews with the participants. This approach is incredibly effective, as the knowledge that we’re watching a true story greatly heightens the tension of scenes that would quicken the pulse in any popcorn action film. The cinematography is breathtaking, conveying the beauty and menace of the mountains and going some way to explaining why daredevils take such risks.

The story starts slowly, but once they’re up the mountain the human drama is utterly compelling, and full of fascinating insights. Joe was raised a Catholic, but realises he is a true atheist when he doesn’t even contemplate prayer. Other moments seem to reveal the very limits of human capabilities, both in the heroes’ incredible physical feats and their mundane self-interest, such as when Simon confesses to wishing Joe dead after he breaks his leg and becomes a burden.

Touching The Void may not be eligible for the Oscars, as the dramatised elements may rule it out of the documentary category. Nonetheless it is an incredible story expertly told, and a film that few are likely to forget.

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