Brokeback Mountain

3 stars


2nd March 2006

Picture this scenario: A cinema, packed to bursting point on a Saturday evening, punters literally spilling out of the doors and onto the pavement outside, apparently quite prepared to face being hit by passing cars in order to join the queues. What's the reason for this mass cinematic pilgrimage? Potter? Kong? Aslan? Scarlett Johansson playing a slut in Match Point? None of the above. These people are here to see one thing. Gay cowboys. Cinema may well have passed a major milestone, folks.

When you heard about the 'gay cowboy' movie, like me you probably pictured a couple of fruity gunslingers in assless chaps and pink Stetsons, limp-wristedly pointing their guns at each other and screeching 'Bang, you are sooo dead!' Reality, as it always turns out to be, is far more sensible and a lot less fun. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are a couple of gruff ranch hands who meet on a sheep-herding job on the titular landmass. You know what they say about lonely nights in the wilderness, so before long, the two pass the time by engaging in swift but violent bouts of 'man rodeo', albeit against their better instincts. When summer ends and the pair part ways, they both continue to lead 'normal' lives, each taking a wife and spawning kids but never suppressing the longing that overtook them back on Brokeback Mountain. As the decades fly by, Del Mar and Twist hook up frequently back where it all began (masquerading as 'fishing buddies') but with pressure from family and society weighing heavy on their minds, they must decide once and for all whether they are steers or queers.

It's important not to let the commercial success of Brokeback Mountain cloud your judgement here - just because Joe Public has apparently decided to let his homophobia take a back seat for a few hours doesn't mean you should get too caught up in the hype. Fact: Brokeback Mountain is a groundbreaking film, undoubtedly, but it's also a very simple picture at heart, in both terms of story and character. Although it may defeat the point entirely, change the central homosexual relationship with a more conventional one and all you're really left with is a couple of strong performances and some kickass scenery. Don't get me wrong, Brokeback Mountain is far from being a right-on 'issues' movie (there's a refreshing lack of a political agenda) but I'm at odds to explain the glowing 5-star reviews I've read in the media. It's by no means a terrible film (it's certainly the best film about gay cowboys I've seen so far this year) but in this reviewer's opinion, it falls short of Oscar material by a considerable margin.

As an epic, generation-shaping masterpiece, it is lacking in too many departments. As a character study, it's an unprecedented success. Ledger, already nominated for all manner of shiny things, imbues Del Mar with the exact amount of pathos needed to balance his character. On one hand, he's a man torn between a stable family life and a forbidden relationship he knows could kill him. By the same token, Ennis is also an adulterer and a liar who not only puts his wife and family through hell but also abuses his relationship with Jack whenever his morals dictate it. Gyllenhaal, who's never really been tested since the days of Darko (being chased by CG wolves doesn't count), does well to tap into the naivety of his character; his attempt to pick up a 'rodeo clown' in a bar is both painful to watch and telling of his yearning to validate his lifestyle choice. Both men speak few words - Ledger rarely raises above a grumble - but it matters not because the performances here are all about body language, and the relationship, pivotal as it is, is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care. It's touching, and more importantly, never exploited to prove a point - the physical scenes are far from explicit, but play second fiddle to the couple's emotional connection. (It's probably still one too many bummings for the Daily Mail to handle, however).

Holding up just as well as the guys are the gals, in the comely shapes of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, the poor souls destined to take the pudding-eating cowboys as husbands. Williams in particular is magnificent, drawing on her real-life relationship with Ledger to great effect - she systematically deteriorates a little more each time her husband goes 'fishing' and her revealing confrontation with Ennis at a family gathering is a real heartbreaker. Hathaway, who's CV highlights include kiddy fave The Princess Diaries, also excels as Jack's wife, transforming from leather-clad rodeo queen to business-savvy Dolly Parton clone as their marriage progresses through the years. The men might be piling up the statues come awards season but Brokeback Mountain represents a real watershed moment in both girls' respective careers.

Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain suffers from a little too much hoorah-ing from the industry, who've falsely interpreted the prominent central homosexual relationship as a green light for a torrent of mouth-frothing hyperbole, instead of celebrating it as the well-handled melodrama that it is. The story, basic though it is, is well told and set against a genuinely breathtaking backdrop, and if the male-bonding and chest-clutching begins to suffocate, you're never more than a few seconds away from a lush-looking vista cutaway to soothe the soul. Expect the world and you'll be disappointed, expect just a small slice of untold Americana and you'll be rewarded with a challenging and satisfying picture that's content to tell a simple yarn without pointing fingers or preaching. Oh, and if all the man-on-man action is too much for you, there's a dripping wet Scarlett Johansson waiting for you in screen 2.

More:  Drama  Romance  Sex
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