Brokeback Mountain (15)
ANDREW CLARKE When a film arrives on this side of the Atlantic having been described by US critics as not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films of all time, then you can't help having your expectations raised.
When a film arrives on this side of the Atlantic having been described by US critics as not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films of all time, then you can't help having your expectations raised.
But don't expect Brokeback Mountain to be a huge crowd-pleaser because it isn't. It's a meditation on how time and circumstance can ruin not only one person's life, but the lives of all those around him. It's a very moving, incredibly well-acted film, but it takes a lot of getting into. It's a character piece without a lot of story but this slim tale is told across the span of 25 years.
Ang Lee, who is a hugely versatile director - responsible for such amazing films as Eat Drink, Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Ride With the Devil and Ice Storm - brings a great Eastern sensibility to this modern-day western.
Brokeback Mountain is told in an almost leisurely way - mirroring the way of life of the two cowboys who are the focus of this haunting tale. Nothing is done in a hurry - they are people of few words and everything just happens when it happens.
The film follows the fortunes of two young cowboys, both loners, both separated from their families either through choice in the case of Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) or by being orphaned Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger).
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The film opens in 1963 in Wyoming, where the two drifters get work for the summer tending a huge sheep herd grazing on the high altitude slopes of Brokeback Mountain.
At first they keep their distance from one another, casting cautious glances, and saying just enough to appear civil. These appear to be modern day equivalents of likes of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart - stoic, tough and reliable. But Ang Lee makes the point that do all gay men have to be like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage? The answer is obviously no.
For the first hour of the film Ang Lee is happy to just let the film slowly unwind - capturing the beauty of their surroundings up the bleak Brokeback Mountain and allowing us to get to know these two enigmatic and taciturn characters.
For the first 60 minutes the total numbers of words uttered could be written down on one side of an A4 sheet of paper. But because we have been forewarned that this is a gay love-story - a gay western - we are always expecting something to happen, which is a pity because this runs against Ang Lee's languid pacing.
We, as an audience, used to western narrative structures and linear storylines, can't quite cope with Lee's Eastern atmospheric approach.
The sex scene when it happens is explosive, violent and brutally frank. It is likely take the breath away of even the most liberal member of the audience. It signifies the release of many weeks, months or even years of pent-up frustration.
It crystallised feelings buried deep inside both of them that they may have never even admitted to themselves before.
Their initial brutal, lustful encounter is followed by an inevitable period of awkwardness in which both declare that they are not gay but both know deep within themselves that is not the truth.
After the summer both men go their separate ways but their lives have changed and a big part of themselves have been left on the mountain.
A number of years pass, both men marry and settle down into relatively unhappy domesticity.
Ennis seems more settled than Jack but when the pair meet up again it is clear that both are consumed with their feelings for one another.
Regular "fishing trips" up on Brokeback Mountain renew their relationship but places an ever-increasing strain on Ennis' marriage. His wife Alma (Michelle Williams) cottons on very quickly to her husband's infidelity and before long they are divorced. Jack soldiers on with his marriage but it is clear that his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), daughter of a wealthy farm machinery supplier, is more than capable of running the business and the house by herself.
An interesting feature of the film is that in Ang Lee's eyes, the wives and the families are equally victims of the times and circumstances which have conspired to destroy the lives of these hapless cowboys.
The film ends on a poignant note - a bittersweet moment - where tragedy and happiness coincide.
Brokeback Mountain is a very moving, understated film, but one in which you have to invest a lot of time and attention. Although you may feel that not a lot happens at the start, stick with it and you will be rewarded.