There’s a very good argument against reading any reviews before going to see a movie. How many times have you seen a movie and wondered if the reviewer had seen something completely different? Either the praise or the criticism just didn’t make sense. I made the mistake of reading too many reviews – both good and indifferent – before going to see ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and my mind was subsequently bristling with expectation. Before detailing my own impressions I’d like to correct a couple of misconceptions about the movie currently creeping into review pages.
Firstly, the sex scenes. I’ve read at least a couple of reviews that say director, Ang Lee, has somehow glorified the act of gay sex, that it has been rendered almost sacred. Well, I must have missed those scenes altogether, because the only sex scene I saw took place in the dark, and resembled wrestling rather than sex. There is also some kissing and hugging, but those preparing to be outraged by lots of naked man-on-man action are going to be disappointed.
I’ve seen the sorts of sex scenes described by these reviewers, and there are none of those in ‘Brokeback Mountain’.
Secondly, the hyperbole. ‘One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.’ ‘The best American movie of the last ten years.’ ‘It has restored my faith in cinema.’ How seriously can one take such comments?
Unfortunately, Hollywood particularly adores a certain kind of movie. A quick scan of the last 30 years of Oscar winners will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s almost as though the movie is awarded ‘bonus points’ for daring to deal with such an issue. It’s a phenomenon that short changes both the subject and the movie.
So just how good is ‘Brokeback Mountain’?
It is certainly a beautifully filmed and directed film. The screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is first rate, and adheres closely to the E. Annie Proulx short story from which it has been adapted.
The young cast – Heath Ledger (Ennis), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack), Michelle Williams (Alma), Anne Hathaway (Lureen) – is impressive, particularly Ledger and Williams. Both roles demand that the actors articulate much of their hurt, frustration and anger by body language and facial expressions alone. There is a scene between the two where Alma confronts Ennis about his supposed ‘fishing trips’ with Jack, and the tension between them, previously expressed with minimal words, suddenly erupts into physical violence. It is a gut-wrenching moment.
Indeed, Heath Ledger’s performance is a revelation. Given his previous screen outings, one might have thought the task beyond him. But he inhabits the role, as all great actors do, and ‘becomes’ Ennis Del Mar.
The film’s greatest strength is its reliance on suggestion over explanation – the memory of a hug, a bloodied shirt, a phone call, a look, a smile. This comes to the fore particularly in the final scenes, when the story reaches its tragic conclusion, and Ennis is left alone with his few memories of a happier time.
‘Brokeback Mountain’ is, at its core, a tragic love story, filled with yearning and regret. Anyone – gay, straight, or otherwise – who has experienced such feelings will relate to the movie and its message. It is, indeed, a powerful film, and will, for whatever reason, walk away with a swag of awards at Oscar time.
Whether or not it is one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements is another matter altogether.