Touching the Void

Kevin Macdonald 06 MINS, 15
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The Independent Culture

Stranded on a peak in the Andes in 1985, mountaineer Joe Simpson - starved, dehydrated and in agony from a broken leg - suddenly found Boney M's song "Brown Girl in the Ring" playing in his head, for hours on end. "Bloody hell," he remembers thinking, "I'm going to die to Boney M." If you invented this telling detail in a drama feature, you'd surely deflate the subject entirely: it would look like a whimsical Richard Curtis flourish, a bluff little British joke to stop things getting too intense.

The ordeal of Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates very nearly did become a drama feature, starring Tom Cruise. Fortunately, it ended up as a documentary instead - strictly speaking, a dramatised documentary - and the reason the Boney M anecdote comes across as chillingly as it does is because we hear it from Simpson himself, in the matter-of-fact tones of a man dispassionately recalling how he once stared madness in the face. Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void is a sort of lantern lecture, with Simpson, Yates and their colleague Richard Hawking reminiscing direct to camera, their accounts illustrated by painstaking reconstructions using actors and climbing doubles.

Macdonald's Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, similarly relied on imaginative reconstruction to bolster the accounts of those who didn't perish. In Touching the Void, the story is calmly narrated by protagonists who lived through their ordeal, men brought so close to the far limits at which body or soul can subsist that we could almost be hearing first-person accounts from beyond the grave. It's as if it's no longer possible to identify the men addressing the camera - so calmly they could be puffing briar pipes before a log fire - with the climbers seen slowly dying, freeze-dried to barely sentient husks.

Simpson and Yates successfully scaled the Peruvian mountain of Siula Grande but ran into trouble on their way down, in crumbling snow streaked like "meringue" (I have no idea whether this is a technical term, but it sounds as if it should be). Simpson breaks his leg, the bone driven right through his knee; Yates starts lowering him, but another accident leaves Simpson dangling on the end of the rope connecting the two men. Unable to hear or see him, Yates eventually concludes Simpson must be dead, and decides his only option is to cut the rope. Simpson plunges into a crevasse, from which the only way out - he concludes in a desperate bet - is down.

Jules Verne might have found this all a bit far-fetched, yet the men tell their tale with unsettling coolness. They could almost be caricaturing themselves as phlegmatic English adventurers out of Rider Haggard, their tight-lipped understatement little short of sublime: things, Yates remembers, "all got a bit out of control, really." The real-life Simpson comes across to camera as a bluff, no-nonsense rugger sort; Yates, still pop-eyed with amazement, is a jug-eared Ginger to Simpson's Biggles; while comic relief is offered by the benignly grinning Hawking, a non-climber recruited en route to maintain base camp, who cheerily admits that he assumed that if his colleagues died, their bodies would just roll to the foot of the mountain. The whole experience looks all the more inhumanly forbidding because of the men's very human inability to say anything enlightening about why they climb, other than that it offers "an amazing sense of space - of getting away from the clutter." One of the few statements with any poetic ring is Simpson's terse comment, about the vast crevasse in which he lands, that such abysses "have a dread feel... not a place for living." Perhaps the story's most amazing aspect is that Simpson and Yates are able to narrate it at all. The film conveys a sharp awareness of the frontier where language, and indeed self, break down - where a person is defined by his physical parameters and situation in space, locked into clothing frozen hard as armour. In its attention to the succession of single moments of peril, the film shows Simpson surviving by - literally - taking one step at a time, each a new challenge, each further breaking down into an unimaginably arduous series of separate operations.

The closer Simpson comes to home base, the more terra firma seems to recede beneath him. At one point, he is tantalised by the sound of inaccessible water running beneath rocks. This is endurance as metaphysical ordeal, making Simpson a latterday version of the Ancient Mariner or some biblical martyr of the desert, if it weren't that Simpson sternly denies the religious dimension to his experience; he realises that he doesn't want to pray, that his survival depends on him rather than God. The nearest the film gets to mysticism is when the camera scans the starry sky, as Simpson imagines becoming part of the mountain, gazing up forever: then we see his frostbitten face, blackened and calcified like striated rock.

When Simpson finally returns to base, after a similarly chill-scarred Yates, Richard Hawking is terrified to imagine what he might now be: as if to survive, Simpson will have become a ghoul. That's what gives the film the extraordinary quality of recounting not just a narrow escape from death, but an actual return from it. The sight of Simpson and Yates today, animatedly talking with unscarred faces, gives the film an uncanny detachment that enhances its vividness: the film isn't about suspense, about making us wonder whether its heroes will survive, but about showing us how they did. Notwithstanding the awe-inspiring vastness of the landscape, the story becomes introspective, concentrated on the workings of the men's minds and bodies - a chronicle of minute actions on which life and death depend.

The nail-biting suspense means that the questions raised may only hit us in retrospect: for one thing, the immediacy of the telling obscures the fact that we're hearing Simpson recall events that he has already turned into narrative once before, in a best-selling memoir. Then there are the moral resonances of the incident: the question of how both men feel today about Yates's decision to cut the rope, and how he has dealt with the dilemma of trying to save a friend, then having to conclude that he is dead and act accordingly. These questions are all the more nagging for being implicit, where a mainstream drama feature would very likely have had to address them full on.

Macdonald, however, gives us no other commentary than the three men's: this may seem a detached film, but the detachment makes it all the more engrossing, more directly and faithfully a transcription of the climbers' experience. There's only the occasional discreet poetic image - a distant shot of two faint lights suspended in darkness, a quasi-abstract vista of crevasse formations like melting Christmas cake. Touching the Void will make you believe you were there, and make you thank God you weren't. It is, as the saying goes, a tribute to human endurance, but in its concrete precision, it also says a lot for the sustaining properties of Berghaus mountaineering gear.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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