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Brokeback Mountain (15)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

There's an episode of South Park, dating back to 1998, where one of the characters (Cartman, of course) refers to all independent films as "gay cowboys eating pudding". There is no pudding in Brokeback Mountain. It would also be doing the film a gross disservice to call it simply a "gay cowboy film", not least because its subjects tend sheep. Based on the short story by Annie Proulx (who also wrote the Shipping News), Brokeback Mountain is the intensely personal story of two rough-and-ready ranch-hand-types who fall in love, in spite of the time, place and their own best intentions.

"I'm telling you man, Burger King still looks open"

Set in Wyoming, occasionally venturing into Texas and Mexico, the film opens in the early 1960s when part-time rodeo rider Jack (Donnie Darko himself, Jake Gyllenhaal) and near-monosyllabic Ennis (daytime television aficionados/English students' favourite Heath Ledger) first meet, hired to spend a summer on the eponymous peak minding an enormous herd of sheep. Alone and isolated but for the flock, the occasional coyote, the unpredictable elements and the truly breathtaking scenery, the two strike up an earnest friendship that explodes violently and unexpectedly into passion.

The film spans another two decades, sometimes jumping years at a time, sometimes making days last seemingly forever, charting the ebb and flow of their lives, their lifestyles, and their relationship – its intensity undimmed throughout. Ang Lee, returning to the director's beret for the first time since his critical mauling for Hulk, sets a very different tone here: the film is about love both spoken and unspoken, feelings felt and suppressed, and unfolds as a series of episodes and images illustrating an increasingly familiar, painful situation for its two protagonists.

While the pacing of the film seems uneven in parts – becoming wearily torpid in the last quarter of an hour – the photography cannot be faulted: the setting and surroundings are as much of a star as the two principal actors, wistfully echoing the emotion of their performances. Gyllenhaal and Ledger throw themselves into their parts with commendable gusto; Jack is all big blue eyes and sly flirtatiousness masking the obligatory inner turmoil, while Ennis mumbles and stumbles along his own tortuous path, his lips permanently pursed and his cheeks seemingly stuffed with cotton wool (like Brando in the Godfather). On a dollars-per-word-spoken rate, Ledger can't be far off Schwarzenegger's figure for Terminator 2 ($21,635 per word, if you were wondering). Honourable mentions, too, to Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams (also Ledger's wife off-camera, incidentally), who play entirely secondary roles with great range and sensitivity.

Critics in the States have raved about Brokeback since its release, and it has garnered an ever-increasing number of awards and nominations. It's easy to see why: the exigent nature of the subject matter, the assured, sympathetic direction, and two young (straight) actors breaking out of the mould in confident manner. Politically, the film has proven something of a hot potato, too – a chain of cinemas in Utah recently cancelled all showings due to the film's subject matter.

So does the film justify the furore? Is it critics' choice because it's a good film about a challenging subject, or simply because it's A Film about a challenging subject? The answer is a little bit of both; while well acted and astutely directed, the film still struggles to engage over its full length, and the themes of forbidden love seem at once familiar and – by the film's conclusion – tired. Perhaps that's to its credit: it feels like a forbidden love story simply between two people, rather than two men. Interesting, thought-provoking and intermittently touching, it never quite rises above the sedate to reach the cinematic pinnacles I'd hoped for.

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Length: 134 minutes
Certificate: 15
Official Site: http://www.brokebackmountainmovie.com/
IMDB Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0388795/
Release Date: 13th January 2006

Top Five Rating: 70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0% (70.0%)
User Rating: 100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0% (100.0%)

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