Tense recreation of a treacherous Andes mountain ascent by two Brits in 1985. Pic uses first-person on-camera accounts of the adventure to backdrop newly shot you-are-there footage showing the awesome and harrowing aspects of their feat. Crossbred feature stands a chance of generating pre-TV coin in select theatrical situations with the "Shackleton" true-life exploits crowd.

Oscar-winning documaker Kevin Macdonald puts one foot adroitly into the dramatic narrative realm with “Touching the Void,” a tense recreation of a treacherous Andes mountain ascent by two Brits in 1985. Adapted from the international bestseller by one of the climbers, Joe Simpson, pic uses first-person on-camera accounts of the adventure by Simpson and fellow climber Simon Yates to backdrop newly shot you-are-there footage that brings home the awesome and harrowing aspects of their feat. A natural for big-event PBS status Stateside and on international webs, crossbred feature stands a chance of generating pre-TV coin in select theatrical situations with the “Shackleton” true-life exploits crowd.

Albeit with less-combustible material, Macdonald here exhibits much of the same talent for invigorating actual events as he did in his 2000 Academy Award winner “One Day in September,” about the hostage taking at the Munich Olympics. Filming both in the Peruvian Andes and in the Alps, Macdonald provides a visceral account of what it’s like to climb one of the world’s most imposing mountains, and provides a taste of the despair that sets in when death appears inevitable.

Simpson and Yates were 21 and 25, respectively, when they decided to try to conquer the previously unclimbed west face of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. With its massive straight verticals, protruding lip near the top and razor-sharp ridge along the summit, Siula Grande looks forbidding indeed. But blessed with cooperative weather and a good plan of attack, the pair reach the top with relative ease in just over three days.

As they point out, however, 80% of climbing accidents take place on descent, and Simpson and Yates are not two to beat the odds. Beset by a full-on storm, they make it just part-way down when Simpson, tied by a long rope to his partner, first breaks his leg, which excruciatingly jams up into his knee, then goes over a cliff, which leaves him dangling in the air some 80 feet above a crevasse.

Given frost-bitten fingers, dehydration and lack of sustenance, Simpson is unable to pull himself up the rope, and Yates, barely able to maintain his footing on an icy slope, can’t see or hear his buddy. Before long, Yates must act despite his impossible moral position: If he cuts the rope, he will probably kill Simpson in the process and violate a fundamental tenet of climbing; if he does nothing, Yates will soon be dragged from his precarious perch, resulting in both their deaths.

Eventually, Yates slices the rope and can only assume that Simpson is dead; wracked with guilt, he then makes his way back to his tiny base camp. Simpson, it turns out, survives the massive fall but lands in a crevasse that he compares in size to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. How he extricates himself from this situation, shattered leg and all, and lives to tell the tale, constitutes the remainder of the amazing yarn.

Often working in close-up, Macdonald conveys the step-by-step, inch-by-inch aspects of technical climbing with startling immediacy but no trumped-up melodramatics; viewers who aren’t motivated to undertake such extreme sports personally will nonetheless be moved by these adventurers’ adversity. The actors playing Simpson and Yates, who are almost always bundled in heavy protective clothing, function as little more than stand-ins or stunt doubles, uttering mostly grunts and shouts.

The men themselves, now 18 years removed from their exploit, recall it all with energy and detail. Part of Simpson’s motivation in writing his book was to exonerate Yates, who faced withering criticism from the climbing community upon his return to England for cutting his partner loose, despite the fact his act resulted in their survival rather than all-but-certain death.

Camerawork, editing and music all work with a single purpose in fashioning a potent experience for those partial to this sort of tale of physical ambition and survival.

Touching The Void

Production

An IFC (in U.S.) release of a Darlow Smithson production of a Film Four and Film Council presentation in association with Channel 4 and PBS. (International sales: Pathe Intl., U.K., London.) Produced by John Smithson. Executive producers, Robin Gutch, Charles Furneaux, Paul Trijbits. Co-producer, Sue Summers. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Based on the book by Joe Simpson.

Crew

Camera (color), Mike Eley; editor, Justine Wright; music, Alex Heffes; art director/costume designer, Patrick Bill; sound (Dolby Digital), Mike Duffield; sound designer, Joakim Sundstrom; climbing photography, Keith Partridge; line producer, Gina Marsh; associate producer, Paul Sowerbutts; assistant director, Nick Laws; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 30, 2003. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Joe Simpson - Brendan Mackey Simon Yates - Nicholas Aaron
With: Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Richard Hawking.
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