Touching the Void

Not a filthy euphemism, rather a true tale of excitement and danger in the mountains. Ooooh!

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 18 Dec 2003 by Craig Eastman
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There are several important things to consider before climbing a mountain, like not bothering in the first place. Alas poor Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, two intrepid/idiotic British climbers who, in the year of our Lord 1984, decided it would be a really great idea to attempt the West face of Nepal's Suila Grande in an alpine stylee (carrying everything you need for the expedition with you as you climb for the laymen amongst you). Blatantly ignoring the fact nobody had managed this before, least of all two likely lads from our fair isle, Simon and Joe proceeded to the top of said big rock before becoming royally f**ked on the way down when Joe mangled his leg. Facing impossible odds, impenetrable weather and the very will of god himself, the duo fought tooth and nail for their very lives as they descended the mountain in a feat that has become the stuff of mountaineering legend. Silly buggers.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name, Touching the Void is an engrossing docu-drama that intersperses talking head interviews with Simon and Joe with re-enacted scenes from their perilous journey. Beginning with the protagonists detailing pretty much how stupid an idea it was to start with, and how foolhardy and ill-prepared they actually were, the ominous nature of their ascent is suitably played up beforehand as we are spoon-fed soundbites that leave us in no uncertainty as to HOW BIG and HOW DANGEROUS Suila Grande is. No shit. It's a mountain.

Painstakingly reassuring us how difficult the climb to the summit was, Simon and Joe do actually manage to look suitably unsettled at the recollection of it all whilst their reconstruction clones wheeze and drag themselves up ice cliffs and powder snow ridges. Things are only hotting up (or indeed chilling down), however, as upon reaching the top via the previously undefeated West face, the two adventurers decided a retreat via the tricky ridge was their best shot at getting down in one piece. Twenty-twenty hindsight and all, eh lads?

Taking an unplanned dive from a steep section of the ridge, Joe managed to land upright on his left leg, which would have been great had his knee not been forced down through the top of his lower leg. It's a genuinely stomach-churning moment of cinema that manages to beat hands down pretty much every cheap horror movie moment of the year, as Joe calmly yet harrowingly recites the splitting of his bones to the view of an on-screen re-enactment that had pretty much everybody in the audience squirming in their chairs. For the first time this year in a cinema I felt the colour draining from my own face; surely a reaction any of this year's abundant crop of cheap schlock-fests would have killed for.

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The horrific part out of the way, the incredible stuff is yet to come. Realising they had to descend quickly or face certain death, Joe and Simon rigged up a system that allowed them to lower each other rapidly by several hundred feet at a time down the face of Suila Grande. A great plan (if stomach-churningly painful for Joe) until Joe disappeared over the side of a sheer cliff face, leaving him suspended eighty feet above a crevasse with no way of communicating his situation to Simon. After hours of waiting, Simon came to the conclusion that his partner was most likely dead and that the only way to survive was to cut the rope joining them together. Which he did.

With no idea what had happened to his partner, Simon made his way back to base camp, leaving Joe stuck inside an inescapable crevasse, miraculously still alive after his second massive fall. The remainder of the film documents his incredible escape from the mountain, pretty much re-defining the term death-defying along the way. There's no doubt as to the validity of Joe's account, as one look at the man almost in tears will testify, and it truly is one of the most incredible stories you will ever hear. What's even more mystifying is that to this day the pair continue to climb despite clearly remaining disturbed by those events. Clearly a case of having had their Weetabix...

Director Macdonald keeps things rattling along at a decent pace, mixing just the right amount of reminiscence with the re-enactment. Given the nature of the piece, there's really very little room for showy camera work or flashy editing techniques, but what's there is handled in a very accomplished manner, and in any case it's the story that's the film's centrepiece. In this respect very little can be found to fault Touching the Void, the only failing being the documentary nature of the piece that might suggest a better experience if viewed at home rather than the cinema.

Having said that the cinema setting does little to detract from one of the finest extended TV documentaries you'll ever see, and if vapid action and cheap thrills are clogging the arteries of your cinema-going experience lately then Touching the Void offers genuine scares, excitement and suspense the likes of which you'll be hard pushed to find elsewhere. Highly recommended indeed.

Disko has awarded this film 4 out of 5 Fab Weasels.

Andrew Macdonald
Cast list:
Simon Yates (Himself)
Joe Simpson (Himself)
Nicholas Aaron (Simon)
Brendan Mackey (Joe)