In the 1960s, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist get a job shepherding on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Slowly they fall in love, starting a 30-year relationship that endures through their marriages and attempts to stay apart. Jack wants to be with Ennis full time, but the taciturn cowboy is too scared of that, which only allows them brief ‘fishing’ holidays in the wilderness. Even so, they just can’t quit each other.
You might think the movie that’s closest to Brokeback Mountain would be something Philadelphia, but it really isn’t. When watching Brokeback, the first film that sprang to my mind was Remains Of The Day. Although Heath Ledger and Anthony Hopkins aren’t normally thought of as two peas in a pod, their characters in Remains and Brokeback are incredibly similar – two men so mired in repression and misguided ideas that they’ll never allow themselves to grab hold of what they want. Likewise Emma Thomson becomes Jake Gyllenhaal, always willing for more but never getting it.
A movie about gay cowboys up a mountain and another about stuffy servants in the 1930s might not seem very similar, but they are about exactly the same thing. It is one of the reasons why both films work so well, as everyone can identify with wanting something but being unable or just too scared to take it. Whether it’s your gay lover or your first crush at school, the opposing feeling of desire and fear are easy to understand.
Brokeback’s a story that’s well suited to Ang Lee’s elegiac style. There are few filmmakers who can so completely immerse you in the worlds they create. Although he hails from Taiwan, he’s convincingly recreated Austen’s England in Sense and Sensibility, 70s New England in the stunning The Ice Storm, the American Civil War in Ride With The Devil and a fantasy China in Crouching Tiger. Although Hulk couldn’t be described as a particularly realistic big green man, the film was still an interesting experiment into mixing arthouse with the blockbuster. So it’s not really much of a surprise that his recreation of Wyoming life over a 30-year period is pretty impressive. And to be honest, Rodrigo Pietro should be cursing the Academy that his incredible mountain vistas and beautifully staged shots lost out to Memoirs Of A Geisha for the cinematography Oscar.
However it’s not just that it looks so pretty that makes Brokeback Mountain the movie that should have won the Best Picture Oscar, it’s also the script and performances. Part of the problem with previous films featuring well-known actors playing gay is that they’ve not been terribly convincing. You can see the problem in Philadelphia in the difference between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas, who are supposed to be lovers. You get the impression from the film that Hanks just quite likes Banderas’s character and would probably go out for a beer with him, while Antonio throws himself into the role and is obviously besotted by his dying partner. Although many have thrown plaudits at Heath Ledger’s admittedly impressive performance, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist who holds the key to the film. With Brokeback having so little dialogue, it’s Gyllenhaal’s incredibly intense looks of love and desire and his character’s need for Ennis that anchor the movie and ensure you’re absolutely there with them emotionally.
Admittedly a few people may be bothered by the fact that everything unfolds fairly slowly and nobody says very much. Even when they are talking, the character’s repressed mumbles are often virtually unintelligible. Although that will annoy some, it’s actually remarkably impressive, as Brokeback therefore becomes a tale told almost entirely through visuals. You could watch this with the sound off and miss very little. The wide open mountains spaces where Jack and Ennis are free to love each other are contrasted with the cramped conditions of the town. Even the brim of a hat and the movement of a wrist are used to tell the story in a remarkably effective way.
It’s also good that screenwriters Larry McMurtry (best known as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘Lonesome Dove’) and Diana Ossana weren’t tempted to turn Ennis and Jack’s wives into terrible harridans that the men need to escape from. As in the original story, Brokeback doesn’t shy away from the fact that they’re both wilfully committing adultery against perfectly decent women, even while it’s sympathetic to the reasons why. Michelle Williams is particularly impressive as Ennis’ wife Alma, fulfilling the promise her apprenticeship on ‘Dawson’s Creek’ showed.
The DVD itself comes with a selection of passable featurettes. There’s an overall look at the making on the movie with ‘Sharing The Story’. The most interesting thing about this is how enthused everyone is about putting this particular tale on celluloid. That theme is continued in the ‘From Script To Screen’ featurette, where the trials of actually getting the movie made in the first place are revealed. The screenplay was written not long after Annie Proulx’s short story was first published in ‘The New Yorker’, but it took seven years to get two actors to commit to the main roles. With a look at Ang Lee and some info ‘On Being A Cowboy’, it’s a competent set of extras for a very deserving movie.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether Brokeback will change the way Hollywood looks at gay people and gay characters. That’s yet to be seen, but the movie’s phenomenal success (in the first three months of the year, only Chicken Little grossed more in the UK) shows that love is truly a force of nature, no matter who it’s between.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac