Brokeback Mountain Review
The Golden Globe nominations this year are an interesting lot, including as they do in the acting categories a pre-op trans-sexual, a gay writer with a squeaky voice, and an Irish cross-dresser. Leading this polymorphously perverse herd by several furlongs is Brokeback Mountain, which comes to our shores already garlanded in glory (Writer Guild, Independent Spirit, Venice Film Festival, Screen Actor’s Guild, just about every Critic’s Circle in the continental United States, and plenty more besides). Based on Annie Proulx’s short story, also making history as perhaps the first truly mainstream gay love story to come out of Hollywood.
Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) (great names!) live hard, cramped lives as ranch hands in 1970’s Wyoming. With few prospects, they hire on as sheep herders for the summer, and head up onto Brokeback Mountain. Nineteen years’ old, neither of them with much experience of anything but horses and sheep; Ennis is engaged to Alma Beers (Williams) and both are saving to buy places. At first they are just glad of each others’ company; as the days and cold nights pass, their intimacy grows until one drunken night when they share a tent and companionship becomes something else. A fierce and passionate love in a film in which the word is never uttered. A love that, in Wyoming, in the 1970’s, can never go anywhere.
Both men acknowledge this. ‘I ain’t no queer’, Ennis mutters, galloping away from Jack to tend the sheep; the summer over, they return to their resolutely conventional, heterosexual lives. Ennis soon has a growing family; Jack tries the Texas rodeo circuit and meets and marries Lureen (Hathaway), a fellow competitor and daughter of a wealthy tractor salesman. Both seem settled, if not precisely happy. And then Jack sends Ennis a postcard, and when they meet its as if they’ve never been apart. Thus begins a secretive and increasingly unsatisfying long distance relationship, desperately trying to recapture that youthful moment of perfection, a lodestone ever further out of reach. Jack drives up to Brokeback for ‘fishing’ trips two or three times a year, but as time goes on he wants more from Ennis than Ennis is prepared to give.
You expect good things from Ang Lee. Apart from one mis-fire (Hulk), his films are glorious to look at and intelligent, and are often studies in repressed desire (his first English language hit, The Wedding Banquet, was a cross-cultural comedy about a gay man who makes a marriage of convenience to hide his real relationship from his deeply traditional and nagging Taiwanese parents). Annie Proulx’s short story, a masterly, economical piece of writing, is the perfect tool for adaptation – instead of pruning, as is necessary with novels, there’s room to expand, and the film breathes new life into the story. In particular, there’s little physical description of the landscape: a line like ‘Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind’ takes seconds to read but cinematically is opened out into amazing vistas in which the sheep and men are barely visible against the magnificently harsh landscape.
If the film has a lesson, it’s about the importance of being true to yourself. Ennis, bought up in the stoic, manly tradition of the west, orphaned and lonely, is only himself on Brokeback Mountain, with Jack. He is conflicted and deeply unhappy. Anyone who has mocked Heath Ledger in the past will have to reevaluate him after this performance, which is being tipped for Oscar nods. Ennis is so unhappy that he barely opens his mouth. The only time we see him smile is when he sees Jack again after their four-year separation. Trapped in a stiflingly dull marriage, with no hope and no prospects, Ennis doesn’t even have the vocabulary to understand that another life is possible – even a trip to Mexico is beyond his imagination.
If Ledger is tight of lip and narrow of eye, Gyllenhaal is the opposite – his Jack Twist is all eagerness, huge puppy eyes (sometimes he looks as if he’s wearing eye-liner) and open body language, more prepared to accept what he is and even to dream of a life with Ennis. He dares to articulate his longing (‘this is a goddam bitch of an unsatisfactory situation’), but can’t get past the brick wall of Ennis’s conventionality, however hard he tries to wear him down. And the film makes it clear how this inability to be honest poisons everyone’s lives. Michelle Williams, an actress with huge potential, is heartbreaking as Alma, weeping into her coffee as Ennis heads off on another ‘fishing’ trip, but the film isn’t really about the women (who, poor things, are either in dowdy housecoats (Williams) or hideous Western clothing and frosted hairdos (Hathaway), trapped in ugly claustrophobic homes; what did they do to offend the costume department?).
An elegant thoroughbred of a movie, Brokeback Mountain is a surprisingly conventional, gloriously beautiful, tragic love story – that just happens to be between two men.
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