Touching the Void

Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Touching the Void
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 

Simon Yates and Joe Simpson were experienced Alps climbers who attempted to be the first to climb the West Face of the Andean Siula Grande mountain.  They succeeded, but on the way down Joe had a terrible accident which shattered his kneecap.  Simon single-handedly lowered Joe down the mountain for hundreds of feet, but after several hours of Joe not responding to his signals, Simon decided he had to cut his friend's lifeline.  Yet it is Joe's best selling novel that Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald ("One Day in September) has dramatized, "Touching the Void."

Macdonald takes such an unusual approach with "Touching the Void," intercutting the talking heads of the three principals with recreations using actors, that one wonders why he didn't just make the leap out of the documentary genre altogether.  While the dramatizations are effective, with cinematographer Mike Eley ("The Navigators") providing dazzling images of a dangerous sport, the storytelling by Yates, Simpson and Richard Hawking (a British traveler who went along and waited at base camp) is sometimes distancing when their words aren't used as voiceover narration.  Macdonald also keeps his three interviewees separated when their interactions two decades later could have added more emotional depth to the tale.

Yates and Simpson provide the requisite mountain climbing background info as we watch Nicholas Aaron (HBO's "Band of Brothers") and Brendan Mackey ("Nine Dead Gay Guys") dwarfed by the majestic, snow-covered Andes.  They prefer the alpine style of climbing, where all supplies are curried in rucksacks rather than establishing camps at different altitudes.  One describes the sport as a combination of ballet and gymnastics, a mix of power and grace.  It is explained that the body dehydrates much more quickly at higher altitudes.  All these facts come into play as we see them work against the team in harrowing circumstances.

Simpson's lovely language, describing the treacherous snow cliffs as meringues, mushrooms and cornices is poetic, especially accompanied by Eley's visual examples.  His descriptive powers also make us wince with empathy through his injury and become thoughtful as he cements his disbelief in God.  He plunges us into the lowest depths of human existence, survival, where his own sense of self almost vanishes.  Yates, on the other hand, is more matter-of-fact, calming retelling his controversial decision to cut the rope Joe was attached to, a decision Simpson has always supported.  Oddly, Hawking repeats his preference for Yates's company several times, but professes no guilt when Yates returns without Simpson.  We also are given no indication of the threesome's current relationship.

Yet, "Touching the Void" is an incredible story of human endurance and man's metaphysical ties to his environment.  In choosing this documentary/docudrama hybrid style, however, Macdonald should have reached for more insights than already found in his source material.


In 1985 two British mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, trekked to the Peruvian Andes to climb the treacherous, never before scaled Siula Grande peak. The pair is successful in reaching the pinnacle but, on their way back down to base camp, disaster strikes. In the blink of an eye, Simpson loses his grip, falls and shatters his leg. 21000 feet up and many, many miles from help Yates attempts to lower his friend down the dangerous mountain face. Filmmaker Kevin MacDonald combines talking head interviews with dramatic reenactment of this Herculean tale of survival and perseverance in “Touching the Void.”

MacDonald’s work falls somewhere between documentary film and full length feature as he intersperses interview footage and commentary by survivors Simpson and Yates with a recreation of the events that transpired in the remote Peruvian mountains. Actors Brendan Mackey and Nicolas Aaron portray Simpson and Yates, respectively, in the climbers’ quest to go where no man has gone before. As helmer MacDonald and his crew recreate the fateful events the real Simpson and Yates tell their story to the interviewer’s camera with typical British understatement.

As the two men describe the ordeal, one says, “Things got a bit out of control, I think.” When Simpson loses his grip and falls, he hits the side of the mountain and his lower leg is driven through his knee cap and into the femur of the thigh. Both men realize that such a traumatic injury, with no hope of outside rescue, spells doom for Joe Simpson. But, despite the impossibility, Yates attempts to lower his damaged friend down the side of the mountain. Painstakingly, Simon tries to combine speed and care as he attempts to save his friend’s life but the mountain is a cruel mistress as Simpson slides off of the ridge to end up hanging in mid air. Yates, 300 feet above, does not know of the latest ordeal and waits, in vain, for a response from his friend.

Simon, dug into the snow, is slowly being pulled by the weight of his partner – living or dead, Yates does not know – and is in danger of being yanked off of the slope to his own certain death. After hours of hoping and waiting, Yates makes the decision to save himself and, reluctantly, cuts the rope, sending Simpson over 100 feet into an icy crevice. As Simon attempts to make the dangerous trip down the Siula Grande, Simpson is stranded in the darkened fissure, alone and scared. With no food, only snow for water and a shattered leg, Joe decides to cling to life and begins the arduous task of saving himself.

When Simpson, many hours later, breaks into the bright light of day, it is only to see that his real ordeal of survival is just beginning. He sees the tracks left by Yates and, crawling across the frozen glacier, inches his way over the miles of treacherous terrain. Since both Simpson and Yates provide the talking head interviews about their plight, we know they both survive. But, this knowledge does not temper the gut-wrenching, sweaty palms, clenched fist feeling I had while watching “Touching the Void.”

Some may criticize MacDonald for his decision to meld the facts of the survival story with the recreation of the men’s ordeal. The filmmaker’s effort is neither apples nor oranges as he crosses the line between the climbers’ story and his interpretation, with actors, of the frightening events. The reenactment is very well done and puts you there as the two men struggle, separately, to survive. The focus of the survival story is, of course, mainly on Simpson. The man’s perseverance and fortitude make for one heck of a story and, even though the tale has a known conclusion, it keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

Technically, the fictional account of Simpson’s story (the film is based on his book of the same name) is quite an achievement in and of itself as the filmmakers put the viewer into the heart of the action. The staged recreation tells a complete story and “Touching the Void” could have been made as a docu-drama, but the voiceover and interview narration by Simpson, Yates and Richard Hawking (the young non-mountaineer who agreed to man the team’s base camp at the foot of Suila Grande) adds a dimension that a purely fictionalized account would lack.

The magnificent photography by Mike Eley and Keith Partridge captures the sheer magnitude of the climbers’ attempt, lending the feel that you are there. The spectacular, stark scenery of the Peruvian locale is artfully composed by the lensers. My only complaint is that the film could have been trimmed by ten minutes or so to tighten it up. Otherwise, I have zero complaint – except my stomach hurt after being clenched, non-stop, for nearly two hours.

Kevin MacDonald has created a hybrid film that skillfully combines its documentary source with its well-conceived fiction. The closest I can come to “Touching the Void,” by way of comparison, is the Errol Morris film, “The Thin Blue Line,” but that work used the fictional element quite sparingly. The bulk of “Void” is recreation. It doesn’t make me want to jump up and climb a mountain, quite the contrary. It is a fascinating and involving work of an incredible feat of survival. I give it a B+.

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