Dir: Kevin Macdonald. UK. 2003. 106 mins
An extraordinary story of human survival is transformed into an exceptional human interest documentary in Touching The Void. Director Kevin Macdonald's first theatrical project since the Oscar-winning One Day In September is as dramatic and compelling as any Hollywood fiction but carries a much greater emotional and philosophical charge. Any adaptation of Joe Simpson's bestselling book can count on a core audience of its worldwide readership and the mountaineering fraternity but Touching The Void has a universal appeal that should place its commercial prospects on the higher summits of theatrical documentaries. IFC Films have acquired US rights and Pathe has scheduled a UK release in January of 2004. The film had a special screening at Toronto.
Ambitious, anarchic climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to conquer the notorious Peruvian mountain of Siula Grande in 1985. Young, fit and fearless, they thrived on the challenge of tackling the previously unclimbed north face of the 21,000 foot mountain. They reached the summit but disaster struck during the descent when Simpson fell and shattered the bones in his leg. The two men struggled on through treacherous conditions until Yates inadvertently lowered his friend over a crevasse. Knowing there was no way back from this situation, Yates cut the rope that tied them to each other and abandoned Simpson to certain death. Simpson's amazing instinct for survival and incredible solo journey became the basis of a 1988 book that has previously attracted movie interest from Sally Field's Fogwood Films as a vehicle for Tom Cruise.
A seemingly conventional mixture of dramatised reconstructions and eyewitness testimony, the documentary version of Touching The Void reveals a sure touch from start to finish. Macdonald has the wisdom to focus exclusively on what happened on the mountain and to let the story speak for itself. He also ensures the reconstructions are as authentic and nailbiting as safety will allow. Filmed in the actual Andes locations and the European Alps using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, the recreated scenes are so vivid that you can almost feel the chill of a wind storm, smell the desperation and experience the claustrophobia inside the bleak, dark crevasse where Simpson lay.
Simpson and a guilt-ridden Yates remain close friends and provide an excellent account of events that becomes the backbone of the film. Recalling nightmare incidents with a lucid clarity and unflinching honesty, their personalities shine through. Simpson's masterful understatement reveals the flinty strength of character in someone who simply refused to accept his fate. 'I can be seriously stubborn,' he observes.
Simpson also discusses his lack of religious faith, his feelings of vulnerability amidst the majesty of the mountains and his conviction that there is no afterlife. It is perhaps this belief in the sanctity of life on earth and his certainty that he was the master of his own destiny that propelled him onwards against all the odds.
Beautiful location photography and eerily atmospheric music from Alex Heffes enhance the scope of a film that will strike a chord even with those viewers whose climbing adventures have been restricted to a flight of stairs.
Prod co: Darlow Smithson
Int'l sales: Pathe International
Prod: John Smithson
Co-prod: Sue Summers
Exec prods: Robin Gutch, Charles Furneaux, Paul Trijbits
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Prod des: Patrick Nill
Ed: Justine Wright
Music: Alex Heffes
Main cast: Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Actors-Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron