Touching the Void
Touching the Void

UK, 2004. Not Rated. 106 minutes minutes.

Cast: Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (interviewed); Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Simon Yates)
Writer: Joe Simpson (book)
Original Music: Alex Heffes
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Producer: John Smithson
Director: Kevin MacDonald


Grade: A- Review by Erika Hernandez

Documentary film is a tricky genre. Its primary purpose is to expose the truth—be it the life of a political figure, the history of skateboarding, the business of running a pet cemetery, or the practice of alternative sexual lifestyles. However, because you see this truth through the illusion of film and cinematic language, you are inherently being duped. This used to bug the hell out of me, until I read a quote from Canadian documentary filmmaker Michel Brault. It has since become a kind of mantra for me whenever I approach a documentary. He said, “We can't think we're creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.” By this standard, Touching the Void is simply triumphant.

The film, directed by Kevin MacDonald (who brought us docs such as Being Mick, Chaplin's Goliath, and the Academy Award-winning One Day in September) is the account of the 1985 mountain climbing expedition taken by British mountain climbers Joe Simpson (who wrote a book about the sojourn) and Simon Yates. The expedition's amazing events are delivered through two methods—voiceover narration from and interview segments with the actual climbers, and reenactment sequences performed by actors Brendan Mackey (Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (Yates). Before the events unfold, Joe relays that, “[Climbing] is what we live for…putting an element of risk back into [life] makes you feel more alive.”

Confident and in good physical shape, Simpson and Yates set out to climb the never before scaled 21,000-foot west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Despite treacherous terrain and below freezing conditions, the skilled pair manages to clear the summit in three and a half days, while an associate waits at their base camp. As they begin their descent, connected by one rope, catastrophe befalls them. Simpson (at the rope's lower end) rapidly loses control, and slides down an almost vertical slope. A ledge breaks his fall, but Simpson lands on his feet. His leg is shattered and pushed into his kneecap. In excruciating pain, Simpson alerts Yates, who is still above him. The two begin a very risky, very slow joint descent.

Brendan Mackey as Joe Simpson
Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) is suddenly in a lot of pain in Touching the Void

Since Yates cannot see Simpson, the two rely on jerking the rope as their only form of communication. But as Simpson is lowered into a huge crevasse, the rope loses its slack—and their communication is gone. Yates' cracking hands cannot hold his partner anymore, and Simpson's mere weight is causing him to lose footing. They call out to each other, but cannot hear anything, because of the distance between them and the mountain's very loud winds. After no word from his partner, Yates assumes he is dead. To save himself, Yates cuts the rope.

This decision we discover is one of the most controversial moves in mountain climbing culture, and has subjected Yates to a huge amount of criticism. Joe Simpson, of course, was still alive, in an icy cave, crippled, freezing, and without hope.

Here is where Touching the Void ceases to be about “mountain climbing,” and begins to explore what dehydration, pain, exhaustion, and desperation can do to the human psyche. Hours run into days, and Simpson makes his way on his back through miles of snow and rock. As he becomes more reflective and delusional, the sound, camera, and lighting turn more surreal. Simpson comes to realizations about life, God, and even laughs at himself as a random and ridiculous tune (“There's a Brown Girl in the Ring” by Boney M) creeps into his head, mocking him. “Christ,” says Simpson via voiceover, “I'm going to die to bloody Boney M!”

We know that Simpson gets rescued somehow, because he is speaking to us. His rescue, however, becomes secondary to the fascinating trip Simpson's 25-year-old mind is taking—certain that he is going to die, but instinctively not giving up. You start to ask yourself, “Would I blame anyone in the end? Would I suddenly adopt or quickly abandon any spiritual belief? What song would creep into my head, guiding me into death—would it be my favorite aria, or a random UB40 tune?” These questions are important to all of us, regardless of whether or not we have ever climbed a mountain, or even hopped a fence. During this sequence, among the swirling questions in my head, were two prominent thoughts: 1) Simpson is very brave. 2) Director MacDonald is wickedly shrewd.

Because Touching the Void plays on universal emotion and dilemma, it is accessible to any viewer. However, if you are hell bent on making this a “mountain climbing and rescue” experience, he provides you with definitions and concepts specific to the mountain-climbing milieu. As you see slow pans of magnificent ice-capped peaks, Simpson describes vertical powder, meringues, mushrooms, cornices, Alpine-style climbing, making beds out of snow caves, and how to properly prepare potable water in sub-zero temperatures.

When Simpson finally reaches base camp, it is almost anti-climactic. In the end, MacDonald spares us traditional drama and makes us work a bit for the film's ultimate meaning. In an era obsessed with ways to capture “reality,” MacDonald rightly uses documentary to reinforce larger truths and ironies—what Simpson has learned; what Yates has to bear; and how through the cutting of a rope, two men are permanently linked.

We have a question, though. Where were the walkie talkies?

Review © February 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 IFC Films. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page