TOUCHING THE VOID directed by Kevin Macdonald, written by Joe Simpson from his book, with Simpson, Simon Yates, Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey. 106 minutes. A Film Four/Pathe production. An Odeon films release. Opens Friday (February 20). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 72. Rating: NNNN
Joe Simpson, the author of touching The Void, may be the toughest human being on the planet. In 1985, he and a friend, Simon Yates, decided to climb the west face of Siula Grande, a hitherto unclimbed 6,400-metre mountain in the Andes. On the way down he ran into trouble.
He broke his leg, then fell off the mountain into a crevasse. He got out of the crevasse and crawled, hopped and dragged himself 13 kilometres down the mountain over three and a half days with nothing to eat but snow. This isn't a spoiler, by the way. He wrote the book this film is based on, and we see him early on narrating the story, so we know he survived.
The film, an adaptation of the book, is an odd hybrid of documentary and drama. It's documentary because it features interview material with Simpson, Yates and Richard Hawking, the guy who stayed at the base camp. On the other hand, all the mountain footage is dramatic recreation, so it's not quite documentary - serious documentary makers get a bit touchy about recreation.
Filming in the Andes and the Alps for the mountaineering footage, director Kevin Macdonald has created both a tribute to human resilience and courage and an acrophobe's nightmare. His camera sweeps through valleys and up to peaks that have never felt the touch of a human foot.
Macdonald has a documentary Oscar for One Day In September, about the Olympic massacre in 72, and his filmmaking skill shows here. He manages to generate suspense in a film whose outcome we already know.
The film has a couple of flaws. The actors playing Simpson and Yates in the dramatic footage are hard to tell apart - they don't even have dialogue. And in the final stages of Simpson's stagger down the hill, Macdonald overdoes the disorienting camera tricks to mimic Simpson's state of mind. The story doesn't need that at the end.
Those are minor flaws, though. This is an astonishing story and a grippingly dramatic film. And a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of taking up mountain climbing.