Monday, January 02, 2006

Review - Brokeback Mountain

Prior to its release, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain has been hailed by some as a landmark film and has been derided by others as “that gay cowboy movie”. In truth, neither description is fair. The lovers at the centre of this story may both be young men but under Lee’s guiding hand the film transcends the confines of gender and sexuality to deliver a film of universal resonance. It’s a tale of two young people who fall in deeply in love but, due to the pressures and prejudices of the society around them, are forced to hide their passion for years and live a double life which has tragic consequences.

It could be the outline to so many Hollywood love stories and, despite all the talk and debate which has surrounded it, Brokeback Mountain is just that - a great love story. This adaptation of Annie Proulx’s devastating short story is one of the purest and most emotionally affecting romantic films to hit the big screen in living memory.

Brokeback Mountain opens in Wyoming in 1963. Two young men, barely twenty years old, are hanging around outside the office of a local foreman who may have some work for them. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is an upright, silent, ruggedly handsome character who barely moves a muscle. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is slightly more animated, a little restless, and one imagines that he would be only too happy to strike up a conversation with this stranger. Not a word is said, however; with only a few suspicious, guarded glances being exchanged beneath Ennis’ broad-rimmed hat.

The foreman (an almost unrecognisable Randy Quaid) does indeed have work for the boys. Their task is to spend a couple of months up on Brokeback Mountain and ensure the grazing sheep are safe from predators. One of them must establish a camp at one position on the mountain while the other must pitch a small tent down with the sheep at night, and return to camp only for meals. As the bitterly cold nights take their toll the two of them begin spending more time together at the camp. Their initial reticence slips into an easy friendship and, one night, the pair’s growing lust takes over and they have rough, fumbling sex inside the tent.

Ennis and Jack’s first morning after is an uncomfortable affair at first. “You know I ain’t queer” Ennis insists, “me either” Jack replies; but their feelings for each other only deepen and the pair will spend the next twenty years attempting to live a ‘normal’ life while dealing with the complex emotions that have been formed on Brokeback Mountain.

Most literary adaptations have the task of choosing what to leave out of the source material without diluting its essence, but faced with Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain’s screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana have been forced to add to the original in order to deliver a fully-rounded feature film. Proulx’s tale is hardly the most promising material for a motion picture; with the spare prose and lack of dialogue among a number of potential stumbling blocks, but the finished screenplay is a marvel. It fills in the gaps which Proulx left in her story - such as cause of Jack’s black eye or his trip to Mexico, which are only alluded to - and beefs up Jack’s personal life and relationships in order to add a sense of balance to a tale which was initially heavily weighted towards Ennis’ point of view. Fortunately these additions are seamlessly blended into a narrative which flows beautifully and effortlessly builds to its moving climax.

Handling this screenplay with consummate skill is the mercurial Ang Lee, whose work here couldn’t be more different from the cluttered and disappointing Hulk. Lee’s control of tempo and mood is complete and with the aid of Dylan Tichenor’s subtly effective editing he imposes a leisurely pace on the film which allows the viewer to become completely enveloped in the central romance. Brokeback Mountain essentially has three narrative strands running concurrently; Ennis and Jack’s relationship together, and both character’s heterosexual lives apart from each other, and he gracefully moves between them, ticking off the years through subtle changes in hairstyles, settings and character.

As ever with Ang Lee’s films, The cinematography (here provided by Rodrigo Prieto) is gorgeous, and successfully captures the vastness of the surrounding mountains which seem to represent the insurmountable gap between the lives Ennis and Jack want to lead and the lives they must live. The strumming guitars on the soundtrack are another atmospheric contribution, providing a plaintive and haunting soundtrack to this tale of forbidden love.

But what really gives Brokeback Mountain its emotional force is the cast. As the taciturn Ennis, Heath Ledger is simply a revelation. Permanently hunched and tight-lipped, he internalises every one of Ennis’s emotions before unleashing them with devastating effect at specific points in the film. Ledger’s extraordinary portrayal expresses his character’s confusion at these inexplicable emotions he can’t control; he almost shrinks into himself and is continually hiding his eyes behind the rim of his Stetson, as if to avoid any semblance of human contact.

Gyllenhaal’s role is more overtly expressive - Jack is far more comfortable with his feelings than Ennis and dreams about a life they could live together - and the actor plays it brilliantly. His optimistic view of what their relationship could be, despite the reality of the situation, is heartbreaking and his frustration as his dreams are constantly dashed is tangible. Neither actor has ever been as good as they are here, and the chemistry they establish together is the motor which really takes this film to another level.

The supporting cast also serve to give Brokeback Mountain an extra dimension. Michelle Williams plays Alma, Ennis’ long suffering wife, whose face is frozen in expressionless dismay when she discovers the truth about her husband, and remains so until she finally confronts him years later. Williams’ sensitive and open performance contrasts beautifully with Ledger’s buttoned-down turn. Anne Hathaway is given less to do as Jack’s wife but she does it well nonetheless, and a sneering Randy Quaid manages to make an impression with his brief cameo.

I’m trying to think of flaws but few spring to mind. Perhaps the film could do with losing a few minutes here or there, but a complaint such as that is churlish in the extreme. Brokeback Mountain is a triumph of sensitivity, honesty and artistry which will haunt viewers’ thoughts for days afterwards. It is a triumph for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal whose understated and nuanced displays are easily the best of their careers; and it is triumph for Ang Lee. From the most potentially hazardous material of his career the director has crafted a heart-wrenching masterpiece which is as epic, impressive and unforgettable as the mountain itself. This is so much more than ‘the gay cowboy movie’; it is one of contemporary cinema’s greatest love stories - simple as that.