More noise than signal

Brokeback Mountain

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

The odds on Ang Lee’s latest Oscar contending directorial effort ever shaking it’s facetious tag of that gay cowboy film, or current right-wing psycho-Christian favourite Homo on the Range seem long, which is a shame as it does it a grand disservice. The lead characters don’t look after cows, but sheep. Therefore, this ought to be known as that gay shepherd film. Vital information status: disseminated. Having got the truly important issues out of the way, welcome to what will be yet another fawning review over a beautiful, delicate story with two amazingly strong lead performances that ought to net Messrs. Ledger and Gyllenhaal so much kudos it can only be termed Kudos-Agogo.

Our cow-shepherd-boys Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are sent up the titular Brokeback Mountain in the sixties, in an area where love may not quite be free but was at least readily available on credit, to guard a flock from wild beasts and such. Devoid of human company apart from each other soon even the stoic, reserved Ennis is shootin’ the breeze with Jack. One thing leads to another and despite neither man considering themselves gay, soon they fall in love. Aww. Cue hot (off-camera) shepherd-on-shepherd action.

The job can’t last forever, and away from the idyllic remotes of the mountainside being homosexual isn’t so much a lifestyle choice as life-threatening. Despite the distress parting causes, Ennis returns home and marries Alma (Michelle Williams) while Jack takes to the rodeo circuit, eventually meeting Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) and doing the same socially demanded wife ‘n’ kids thing. This is as successful and satisfying a venture for them as you’d expect it to be. They continue an affair over this time, which really isn’t doing wonders for anyone’s mental state but seems to be all the happiness they are doomed to experience in what come to be a tortured existence

This is a very tightly focused love story. It’s about Ennis, Jack, the external force that drives them apart and the fallout this causes. Editorially, it makes as little real comment about societal homophobia as Romeo and Juliet does about inter-house feuding (I think technically that ought to be feudal feuding, but that sounds silly). The position that both are Bad Things is easy enough to arrive at, but you’ll feel that you get there under your own steam rather than having it bludgeoned about your head with the sledgehammer of plot. The genius of this film is that while it’s essentially guaranteed to prompt thoughts about the broader social implications raised, it’s happening entirely on your own terms. There’s no activist posturing or agenda foisting, just a gentle plea to examine your own attitudes, should you so desire.

Perhaps it’s a bit too gentle, as at times it’s subtle to the point of seemingly doing nothing. The story, although I suppose nominally a tragedy, isn’t the sort to throw histrionic fits. I suspect part of the reason such a brouhaha has been raised about Heath Ledger’s rightly applauded performance is that Ennis’ man-of-few-muttered-words act doesn’t just set the tone of the film, but encapsulates it nicely.

Ledger’s taken a great deal of flack over his short career, which I think is slightly unfair on the boy. I mean, yes, Sin Eater contained an awful showing, but it was an awful film. I’d give serious thought to blaming his agent. Anyhow, recognising the way things were headed corrective action was taken, and there will have to be something rather special coming up in the next few months to stop him walking off with that little gold statue thingummybob that’s so gossiped about around this time. It’s a measured, subtle and near-as-dammit flawless performance. If you want to be a quibbler, at times Ennis comes across as so repressed there’s fleeting question marks over how much it’s possible to care about him, but as you’ve probably picked up on repression is sort of the point. No quibbles here, chief.

Gyllenhaal is no less impressive, although his character is perhaps less intriguing than Ledger’s. He wears his heart a little more obviously on his sleeve, although unfortunately when you do that it’s far easier to be stabbed in it. It’s no less excellent a performance, although I wager by this point in time you’ve read more than enough column inches dedicated to their praise to render this additional heaping redundant, so we’ll crash on through. His moustache, however, remains a critical facial hair mis-step.

I feel for Ang Lee. Not literally of course, he’s nowhere near me so the effort would be in vain. However, the flak he took over Hulk seemed entirely unwarranted. Having produced a sensitive, artful take on the character and bringing a much needed breath of fresh air to the comic book adaptation market which even then was stale, everyone whined that there wasn’t enough explosions. Occasionally this would, bafflingly, lead to claims that he can’t ‘do’ action scenes, as though Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a romcom or something. Bah. Brokeback Mountain sees a return to the personal, human condition type of story that made his name, and if nothing else ought to shut the naysayers up. There’s a suggestion that it’s a mite too long for what it says, but there’s no scene that you could argue need not be there. Even just staring at the beautiful scenery on the mountainside seems as much a part of the story as the dialogue. The mark of Lee’s skill is not merely in the performances he’s pulled from his cast, it’s that despite having no obvious crowd-pleasing fireworks and the necessarily measured pacing it’s never less than utterly compelling. I’m convinced we’ll be watching this for some time to come and it’s never going to be less enthralling.

Mercifully, the controversy promised by various tabloid commentators has proven to be so much hot air and society these days is somewhat less homophobic than that of this film. There’s certainly been few more heartening moments in multiplex history than the biggest screen in Edinburgh (I think, certainly the biggest in our cinema of choice) turfing out the soul-less, hollow King Kong to instead pack out a showing of a film many thought would be of niche interest, banishing the big monkey to the more broom cupboard-like screens. Brokeback Mountain is a touching story that you’re very likely to find yourself thinking about days afterwards, and if there’s many better films released over the next year we’ll consider ourselves fortunate.