Touching the Void (15)

Kevin Macdonald (106 mins) starring Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Joe Simpson
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Considering how slavishly "realistic" modern cinema likes to be in its depiction of wounds, one seldom comes across a film that conveys what it might be like to live, hour by hour, in unrelieved physical agony. There's probably a good reason for this: it would be intolerable to listen to someone screaming in pain for more than a couple of minutes, let alone a couple of hours. But on a mountain, just as in space, no one can hear you scream - not at 20,000 feet up with the wind howling around your face and snow muffling your voice to nothingness.

This is approximately the pass mountaineer Joe Simpson reached in 1985 when he broke his leg descending the perilous Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It is the turning-point of the book he wrote about the climb, Touching The Void, which has now been brought to the screen in docudrama form by Kevin Macdonald. It was initially intended for a Hollywood feature film, with Tom Cruise slated to star - here, after all, was a tale of friendship, danger, fear, sacrifice and unbelievable endurance in the face of death. Who could ask for more? But Hollywood backed off, and the reason perhaps lies in the way that particular "friendship" worked: it is a curious irony that Simpson and his mountaineering partner Simon Yates were roped together as they climbed - one literally dependent on the other for his life - yet once crisis struck the pair saw nothing of each other. No interaction and, therefore, no buddie movie.

Macdonald finds a way around this problem by melding documentary with dramatic reconstruction. Interspersed with to-camera solo interviews with Simpson and Yates are strikingly realistic scenes of the two climbers' fateful journey, filmed partly in the Alps and partly amid the terrifying majesty of the Siula Grande itself. The soaring visuals prove an effective complement to the wry matter-of-factness of the climbers' reminiscences; the former presents the nightmarish physical challenge, the latter an insight into their psychology.

Having reached the summit they now faced the greater challenge of getting back down since 80 per cent of accidents occur on the descent. Caught in a whiteout, Simpson slipped and broke his leg, which is in effect a death sentence at this altitude. The logical thing for Yates to have done was to leave his partner. Instead he attempted to lower him down the side of the mountain, harrowed by appalling weather, dehydration and, as if that weren't enough, the excruciation of a broken leg hitting the rock face.

But catastrophe strikes again when Simpson is lowered over the edge of an unseen ice cliff, and, suspended in mid-air, is unable to communicate with Yates 300 feet above him or to climb back up the rope with his frostbitten fingers. A horrifying dilemma presents itself to Yates, straining to hold the rope: either he will be pulled off the edge by his partner's weight, or he must cut the rope and give at least one of them a chance to live. After much agonising Yates does cut the rope, breaking one of climbing's sacred rules, which is never to cut the rope that binds you to your partner. Tormented by guilt and wondering if he could lie about what happened, he struggled back to base camp where he eventually poured out the story to another friend, Richard Hawking.

What follows is the most remarkable comeback since Lazarus, though it both gains and loses something in terms of dramatic impact. Having plunged about 150 feet into a crevasse, Simpson had landed, by some miracle, on a narrow ledge of ice. Perched over the void and unable to climb back up, he contemplates his almost certain death, entombed within the ice. In interview, Simpson recalls the dreadful loneliness and fear he experienced in those hours, though even in extremis he never prayed: the one-time Catholic discovered he was now incontrovertibly a non-believer. The advantage of talking-head interview is his being able to explain exactly what steps he took, lowering himself further into the crevasse as far as his rope would let him to see whether there might be a way of escape beneath. The drawback is that our foreknowledge of Simpson's survival rather diminishes the tension of his escape, even though the actor playing him (Brendan Mackey) really does look like a man who's been flayed by an ice storm; by the end his face has the red rawness of a carpaccio.

His three-day hobble-and-crawl down the mountain, dragging his shattered body through a minefield of crevasses, almost defies belief for its superhuman endurance and determination. You wonder, though, whether one of the most interesting aspects of the story has been overlooked. The press notes inform us that reaction at the time was dominated by the climbing community's hostility towards Yates for having dared to cut Simpson's rope; he was more or less ostracised, and on one occasion physically attacked. Simpson was quick to defend his partner, and his book would eventually exonerate him, but exactly what horrors of remorse and persecution Yates suffered go unexplored.

Touching The Void is a gripping testament to survival in the face of unimaginably harsh odds, and won't be quickly forgotten. All the same, I was left feeling that Macdonald had got hold of two great stories but told only one.