Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams

Directed by: Ang Lee

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain - you know, the 'gay cowboy film'. Well, yes, it is, but it's also a powerful, heart wrenching and ultimately tragic love story, the most moving doomed romance since Casablanca.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet for the first time herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, in Wyoming. Both are rough and ready, hardy types: dour, silent Ennis has dragged himself up from an early age since his parents' death, while mercurial Jack aspires to make his mark in the tough, macho world of rodeo riding. So far so typically cowboy movie. until they fall in love.

Obviously this cannot be. This is 1963, after all - homosexuality was still illegal in this country; in the provincial towns of Mid West America it was practically unheard of - 'the love that dare not speak its name' indeed. This is a world in which people get hitched, raise of couple of kids and work themselves into the ground at a job they hate because that's just what you do; a world where 'queers' are beaten to a pulp and left to die in a ditch; a world where nobody believes they have a right to be happy.

Jake Gyllenhaal woos Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain

And so the two men part, Ennis to marry his childhood sweetheart and carve out a somewhat joyless family life in the small town of Riverton, grafting as a ranch hand for a pittance; Jack to ride in the rodeo and eventually catch the eye of a wealthy Texan heiress.

Yet for twenty years, the two men continue to meet up as regularly as they can for furtive 'fishing trips' in the mountains, brief, snatched interludes of happiness in their otherwise drab, unfulfilling half-lives; 'high altitude' moments which become increasingly more emotionally painful as the years go by. Wives and girlfriends, dodgy shirts and worse facial hair may come and go, but the pair remain solid. Like their love, their escapes to Brokeback Mountain are timeless, unaltering, while life in the real world marches relentlessly on, marked by an ever changing progression of increasingly ridiculous hairstyles and nasty kitsch household appliances, which seem to serve as symbols of the shackles which bind the two men to the fake lives they must endure.

On the mountain, they need nothing but a tent, a can of beans, and each other. Off the mountain, Ennis is constantly beset by money worries, at the beck and call of a series of overbearing bosses, while Jack is trapped in his wife's family business, emasculated by his rich, overbearing father-in-law (his wife - bizarrely but brilliantly played by The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway - is portrayed as eternally chained to the accounting machine). Eventually Ennis manages to free himself from material constraints - 'If you don't got nothin', you don't need nothin',' he mutters to his daughter as he shows her into his empty trailer home. But by then, I'm afraid, it's too late.

In the end, nothing much happens in this story which is at once both incredibly enormous and important and very small and insignificant. Jack and Ennis's romance is played out 'in the middle of nowhere', dwarfed by the shadows of the vast mountains. Stoical, taciturn Ennis may be secretly torn apart by his great secret, but, alone in an empty prairie, tumbleweed blowing by, he knows that in the great scheme of things, his problems don't amount to a hill of beans.

Heath Ledger as Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack in Brokeback Mountain

And yet at the same time, their love is a huge, huge thing, as primal, forceful and overwhelming as the landscape in which it was born - and well served by a film that is equally powerful, awesome and sweeping. From the breathtakingly majesty of the scenery to the perfectly nuanced script, evocative soundtrack and marvellous, Oscar worthy performances, Brokeback Mountain is an absolute triumph. Jake Gyllenhaal excels as the sweet, passionate dreamer Jack, ready to defy the world and grab this chance of happiness. Heath Ledger has the harder job as the reticent realist Ennis, who sees the world as it really is - harsh and unforgiving as the wilderness. A man of few words, Ledger does a brilliant job expressing his tumultuous pent up emotions through clenched jaws and fists, spilling over occasionally into sudden outbursts of aggression.

Ang Lee, as ever, manages brilliantly to stir the sentiments without ever straying into sentimentality, displaying a touch as deft and sensitive as he did in Crouching Tiger and Sense and Sensibility. Strong, honest and emotionally riveting, Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful, heartbreaking, grown up love story which will stay with you for a very long time.

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