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August 09, 2009


Touching_the_voidThe docudrama genre has rarely been so well served as it is by director Kevin Macdonald’s groundbreaking rendering of the remarkable true story of two young British mountain climbers’ near-death experience scaling a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Based on mountain climber Joe Simpson’s book "Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man's Miraculous Survival," the film features in-depth interview accounts with the actual climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) set against breathtaking reenactments using stunt climbers and actors (Nicholas Aaron, Ollie Ryall, and Brendan Mackey) on the Siula Grande and on locations in the Alps. One highlight of the film is Joe Simpson's own reenactment of a sequence from his terrifying experience on the mountain.

Besides being based on one of the most captivating tales of survival imaginable, “Touching the Void” gains credibility from scenes filmed in the exact locations where the actual events took place. Tearing a page from the Errol Morris school of documentary filmmaking, Macdonald uses a similar interview system, allowing his subjects to open up directly to the camera as if looking the audience in the eye as a trusted confidant. Macdonald’s inclusion of Richard Hawking, the man entrusted to watch over their base camp until the climbers’ return, proves an enormous benefit to the film, partly due to Hawking’s sincere yet energetic demeanor during the interviews.


Macdonald’s concentrated use of close-ups in the snowy reenactments conveys the bizarre mix of emotions at play despite the layers of protective clothing that disguise the film’s subjects. The filmmaker’s rigorous reenactments put the viewer inside the physical and mental weeklong nightmare that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates endured. The result is painfully nerve-wracking.

Fascinating, passionate, and steeped in the riveting determination of one man’s interminable will to live, “Touching The Void” is a startling film that rattles your nerves and sends a cold chill deep right through you. Simon’s meticulous explanation of his conscious and subconscious thought processes during his physically and psychologically punishing ordeal illuminates his singularly straightforward disposition. The fact that he never felt compelled to pray speaks to the adventurer’s uncompromising commitment to truth, and to surviving a situation that few people could or would walk away from if they found themselves in a similar predicament. "Touching the Void" is an outstanding example in that rarest of all film genres, the docudrama.


Rated R. 106 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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