Docudramas, like biopics, are difficult things to pull off. They have to be close enough to the truth to be credible in the eyes of those involved, but they must also be engrossing and entertaining enough to pull in audiences which are not so well-versed. Touching the Void is a first-class balancing act between the two, and after eight years it remains both Kevin Macdonald's best film and a high point of the genre.
Touching the Void recreates the extraordinary story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two British mountaineers who attempted to be the first to climb the southern face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Having successfully reached the summit, tragedy struck on their descent when Simpson fell and broke his leg. Yates attempted to lower his friend down the mountain, but bad weather and increasingly desperate circumstances led him to cut the rope holding his friend. After surviving a fall into a deep crevasse, Simpson was able to climb and crawl his way down to the base camp despite having a badly broken leg and not eating for several days.
Under normal circumstances, you would now have every right to have a go at me for spoiling the plot. But what makes Touching the Void so interesting, and remarkable as a piece of filmmaking, is that it is able to keep you in nerve-shredding suspense about the predicament of these two men even though the outcome is already known. The film makes this very clear by having both men appear in person in the opening shots (although in separate interviews, for reasons that will become clear from watching).
Unlike most films, where too much prior knowledge can cause prejudicial judgement, Touching the Void is not affected by whatever background research you would care to undertake. You could know the story and the book on which it is based inside out, and you still wouldn't be able to stop yourself sitting open-mouthed, wondering how the hell both of these brave men are still alive.
In terms of its themes and ideas, the film is on its most general level about the ability of people - or at least certain kinds of people - to do the seemingly impossible under an appalling set of conditions with all the odds staked against them. Every time you think the characters have reached their limit, and that they cannot possibly even hope of surviving, they quickly go beyond said limits without a second's hesitation. Rather than begging them to just stop and let death take its course, we are in awe that they even had the idea to try, let alone by the reality that both survived.
Like many extraordinary figures in whatever discipline, the relationships we build with Simon and Joe are a mix of distant admiration at what they did and endearment at how easily they can describe or relate their experiences. The more time we spend in their company, the more convinced we become that, under the same circumstances, we could not have done a tenth what they managed to do. This sense of distance, which is present in a lot of war documentaries, almost makes us feel inadequate and unworthy to be in their company.
Fortunately enough, both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates turn out to be fascinating and approachable characters, who take a very straightforward, down-to-earth approach to both the incident and life in general. Simon is the more animated of the two, at least in terms of his facial expressions: his soft Yorkshire accent and darting eyes make him resemble a younger, more athletic Nick Park. Joe, on the other hand, is very considered, with very little movement in his upper body and a more lackadaisical way of talking. Macdonald shoots their interviews in fixed close-ups, so that every facial tic and change in vocal pitch becomes magnified, helping our insight to grow.
Accompanying the interviews we have reconstructions of both the climb and Joe's miraculous descent down the mountain. In many TV documentaries, this is normally the point where things get silly, as an assortment of actors with varying degrees of hair and make-up sit around explaining the plot in funny accents. But Touching the Void is deeply cinematic, and the actors involved in these reconstructions make the experience very real. The pain and anguish is so believable that you can't help but wonder what Macdonald must have put them through on the set (if it can be called a set) to get them to that point of intense emotion.
These reconstructions have a second role, namely in demonstrating how well-directed the film is. Macdonald contrasts the undeniable beauty of the mountain ranges and Andean lakes with the cold, dark, nightmarish reality of the crevasse into which Joe falls. His choice of camera angles is superb, ranging from wide helicopter shots of the actors on the summit to extreme, shaky-camera close-ups in the snowstorm.
This sense of professionalism makes the harsher moments of Touching the Void all the more wince-inducing. The scenes of Joe hopping his way down a glacier, screaming in pain every time his bad leg brushes against a rock, cause you to crumple up and almost watch through your hands. But even the non-physical elements of the film make it almost unbearable (in a good way). Because your proximity to the actors is so close, you are forced to ask yourself the very same questions. Would I have cut the rope? Would I have waited longer at the base camp? Would I have even tried to make it out of the crevasse?
There is a natural comparison between Touching the Void and 127 Hours, since both films deal with characters in extremis who are forced to make potentially life-threatening decisions. And in terms of our relationship with the characters, there is a part of us which continues to believe all through the film that both the climbers and Aron Ralston are completely reckless in what they are doing. But whether because of the presence of the real-life men on screen or the performances of the actors retracing their steps, it is much easier to forgive this trait in Simon and Joe, making them more readily likeable.
The one real weakness of Touching the Void, however, is something which is closely tied to the work of Danny Boyle. There is an interesting counterpoint in the film between the human and the spiritual; Joe may be a declared atheist, but he still speaks of "malignant forces" on the mountain - another reading of 'void' in the title. But when the film attempts to depict his spiritual frame of mind, it gets a little bogged down. Macdonald is not as adept as Boyle in interweaving the fantastical or supernatural into the grim and realistic, and the use of timelapse on the glacier looks like a lazy riff on the boulders sequence in Sorcerer, William Friedkin's much-maligned remake of The Wages of Fear.
In spite of this minor shortcoming, however, Touching the Void is a riveting docudrama and a very fine filmmaking achievement. From a narrative point of view it achieves the rare feat of creating genuine tension and suspense when the outcome is clearly known to the audience. The fact that it shows its hand so early in this respect is a sign of great confidence in both the story and its emotional impact. It is a gripping work from every conceivable angle, and while not the most relaxing experience, it deserves to be seen.