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Touching the Void (2003)

A story of human character tested to its very limits.

Directed by:

Kevin Macdonald

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 106 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Following hard upon the success of his 1999 Academy Award winning documentary 'One Day in September', director Kevin Macdonald has now raised his brand of widescreen reportage to new, vertiginous heights. 'Touching the Void', adapted from Joe Simpson's book of the same name, reconstructs a disastrous attempt undertaken in 1985 by Simpson and Simon Yates on the previously unclimbed west face of Peru's Siula Grande.

The pair decided to climb 'Alpine style', i.e. in one push, taking away the safety net provided by staged camps. The three-day ascent turned out to be relatively smooth-going, if exhausting, but once at the summit, things went downhill in every sense. Simpson's leg became seriously injured in a fall, leaving him unable to walk. Faced with worsening weather conditions and a lack of supplies, Yates improvised a method of lowering Simpson rope-length by rope-length, but when Simpson was inadvertently sent dangling over a cliff, Yates had no alternative but to cut the rope and make a difficult solo descent. Though believed by Yates to be dead, Simpson had survived his fall into a crevasse, and kept on surviving through four days of extreme pain, dehydration, solitude and hallucinations as he crawled limply over crevasse, glacier and hard rock back to base camp.

While most documentaries are made for television, the elemental scale of 'Touching the Void' repays in full being seen on a big screen. About as close as the average viewer is ever likely to come to the actual experience of assailing a dangerous peak, it will make the crushed ice in your beverage seem unnaturally cold. Combining footage of actors retracing Simpson's and Yates' steps amidst unforgiving mountain scenery with straight-to-camera commentary from the main players about their personal trials, Macdonald finds the perfect level of elevation at which the human meets the sublime. The breathtakingly vast shots of mountain ranges, the ethereal blue skyscapes, the howling snowstorms and cavernous crevasse interiors all create a spectacular vision of nature's beauty and menace, in the face of which the human participants seem isolated, helpless and very small indeed. The fact that some of this was filmed on Siula Grande itself (as well as in the Alps) hints at a production that must have been nearly as arduous to stage as the original expedition.

From this overwhelming landscape emerges a story of human character tested to its very limits. There are remarkably frank accounts from both Yates and Simpson of the dreadful chain of events which led Yates to cut the rope – a decision which has won Yates opprobrium from the world's climbing community even though Simpson himself thinks Yates acted entirely properly. Most of the film, however, is concerned, as the title suggests, with Simpson's struggle to escape the cold grip of death, delirium, and a Boney M song stuck on loop in his head ('Brown girl in the Ring', whose repeating lyric, 'show me your motion', may just have been the inner voice which kept him moving). The story's natural drama and (literal) cliff-hanger suspense is perfectly complemented by the matter-of-fact tone of Simpson's narration – apparently the man who nearly froze to death has lost nothing of his cool. He is still climbing today.

It's Got: Awesome scenery, an unbelievable (but true) story of difficult decisions and life-or-death situations, and the line Bloody hell, Im gonna die to Boney M!.

It Needs: A Saint Bernard.


Cliffhanger, K2, The Eiger Sanction


Why see 'Touching the Void'? Because it's there, of course – but also because it's full of breathtakingly sublime photography, awful dilemmas and cliffhanger suspense.

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