The worst bit of the new Kevin Macdonald film of Joe Simpson's epic
Touching The Void is the moment when the actor playing Simpson fires
his bolt gun from the depths of a crevasse where he's trapped, lassos
the piton he's placed with a 60-metre rope then hauls himself up the
rope hand over hand, swinging free while the camera focusses on his
sweat-free but grimly set face.
Meanwhile back at the base camp metropolis, Simon Yates is calming
Joe's fiancee, played by Cameron Diaz, while she hysterically accuses
him of having cut the rope in order to land a massive BMC insurance
policy pay out.
Okay, stop there.
We were lying, but given the track record of climbing films on the
big screen it wouldn't be entirely surprising if if things weren't,
erm, entirely realistic. The good news is that Touching The Void, the
film, is both utterly faithful to Simpson's gut-wrenching, gripping,
epic book and, if anything, even more powerful and visceral.
Arguably, we think, the best climbing film ever made.
It's quite some trick and a tribute to the power of Simpson's story
that Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald manages not just to hold
the tension from the dramatic beginning as Joe and Simon set off on
their climb of Siula Grande, but to build it through Simpson's
nightmarish struggle down the crevasse to safety through to the
cliffhanging moment of Joe's final rescue.
The film is visually stunning - the starkly realistic climbing
sequences and stunts were filmed in the Alps and you can feel the
security or otherwise of every axe placement. Even better, a
20-person film crew actually returned to Siula Grande, in Peru's
Cordillera Huayhuash to shoot the actual face, for some incredible,
never before seen shots of the face itself and the base camp valley
What really makes it though is the intercutting of this dramatic
footage with both shots and voiceovers from simply shot but
exhaustive interviews with Simpson, Yates and Richard, the trekker
who was with them at base camp. It gives the film a simple humanity
and neatly captures the stark honesty of the inner voice that makes
the book so compelling and extraordinary.
Straight to Camera
It's also the first time, to our knowledge, that Simon Yates has
talked directly about his part in the story, meaning that the film,
for once, actually adds to the book. It's fascinating too to see
Richard, the grinning trekker, seemingly as bemused now by the whole
thing as he appears to have been when it happened - a neat
illustration of the differences between those who choose to tackle
hard mountains and 'normal' folk.
Its the combination of the extraordinarily realistic climbing scenes
- some were filmed in blizzards at temperatures of around minus 20
degrees C in the Alps - with the voiceoevers that really make the
film and keep it real.
Somehow the knowledge that the gut-churning impact of Simpon's
initial fall, you hear the egg box crack of his leg snapping,
happened to a real person, makes the accident reconstruction more
horrifically real than anything Hollywood can come up with. After a
while you forget that these are actors playing Joe and Simon and
start to believe that the figures on the screen are the real climbers
there and then.
In The Crevasse With Joe...
The strength of the visual medium adds real power to the story.
Simpson's crevasse escape was actually filmed inside a crevasse and
really brings home the crushing hopelessness of his position deep
inside the glacier. Similarly aerial shots of his crucifyingly slow
progress down the jumbled glacier make you realise just what he was
Even Simpson's slow descent into a state of waking nightmare is
brought vividly to life using a combination of aural and visual
effects, including the compulsive reptition of Boney M's 'Brown Girl
In the Ring'. And finally the climax is every bit as powerful and
moving as it is in the book.
Just See It
We could blather on about Touching The Void, but the simple
message is that this is simply a superb docu-drama representation
that takes the skeleton of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates's story and
adds gripping, evocative flesh to those bones.
The film took two years to make and it shows. It's visually
stunning, but always realistic and the constant presence of the real
people involved in the drama, through voice-overs and head and
shoulder interview shots means you never forget that this is a real
story. In short it's a triumph that for once is every bit as good as
the book. Just go and see it.
For links to previous OM articles on TTV and about and by Joe
Simpson, scroll to the bottom of this page.
Where to see Touching The
The film has a gala premiere at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival
over the weekend of 14 / 15 November, but all showings at Kendal are
now sold out.
Fortunately there's not too long to wait with the fim scheduled
for general release from 12 December. The first cinemas due to
show it are listed below: