movie film review | chris tookey

Brokeback Mountain

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  Brokeback Mountain Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.52 /10
Ennis Del Mar - Heath Ledger , Jack Twist - Jake Gyllenhaal
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Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana , based on the short story by Annie Proulx

Released: 2005
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 134

This hot tip for Oscar glory has already won the dubious accolade of being hailed as “the first gay western”, but that’s a trifle misleading. It’s set in a period from 1963 onwards, as opposed to the nineteenth century heyday of the Wild West. And its two leading characters aren’t really gay at all, but bisexual.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Gayer of the two, and the more extrovert, is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, pictured right), a sensitive Texan lad who’s an unsuccessful rodeo rider and has to look for work in far-away Wyoming, looking after sheep on Brokeback Mountain.

Up there, he falls in love with a man’s man called Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, pictured left), an isolated male of so few words that he makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like Julian Clary. At the end of the shepherding season, the two men part, and Ennis goes off to marry his intended (Michelle Williams) who bears him two daughters.

Jack settles into normal life rather less easily, but also finds a bride in a pretty Texan (Anne Hathaway) whose rich, authoritarian daddy finds Jack a job in his business, selling combine harvesters. But over the next few years, our two leading men meet for fishing and hunting expeditions where they don’t do too much fishing or hunting.

Director Ang Lee has made a film about homosexual love before, in the extremely charming romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet. This time, however, he is in deadly earnest, and Brokeback Mountain is a solemn, often sombre, occasionally violent account of the pain of a man who thinks he’s “straight” but is really in love with another man.

The film faithfully reproduces the angst-ridden drama of the original 1997 short story by Annie Proulx (who also wrote The Shipping News). It skilfully builds upon its characters and central theme: the tragedy of not being able or willing to recognise the largest love of your life. And whereas the short story limited itself very much to the two men’s perspective, the screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana makes much more of an effort to understand the narrative from the point of view of the two women whom the men marry.

Especially clever is the way the script undermines gay stereotypes without banging the drum of political correctness. There’s a great scene – not in the short story – where Jack does battle with his domineering father-in-law over how to bring up his son; and it makes clear that Jack’s effeminacy does not equate to a weakness of will.

Another memorable scene that I don’t recall from the short story comes when Jack tries to chat up a man in a bar, only to discover that he’s aggressively “straight”. Such episodes capably convey how it must feel to be an outsider, along with the potentially lethal strength of mid-Western homophobia.

Ang Lee has always been wonderful with actors (remember Sense and Sensibility?), and never more so than here. It will be a surprise if Ledger’s gruff, understated but extremely powerful performance does not win him an Oscar nomination, and Michelle Williams as his long-suffering wife may get a nod as Supporting Actress too.

Lee’s use of scenery and seasons to convey emotion is marvellous throughout. This has the scale of a big western, and though it might be said to subvert the genre, it celebrates it too.

Brokeback Mountain itself symbolises the natural world, where society doesn’t exist and man can be true to his deepest nature, whatever that may be. Lee and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, brilliantly use landscape, sky and extreme weather conditions to put the two leading men in context. When Ennis and Jake return to so-called civilisation, they find themselves having to live in poor, cheap housing that’s as flat and cheerless as their emotions. All this is so exquisitely observed that it communicates itself to us without any need for dialogue.

Often in American films, the characters seem possessed of limitless funds, no matter how poor they are meant to be. Here, there’s a real sense of having to make compromises simply in order to keep in work and pay the rent. In short, the film conveys a very rare sense of truth.

Also, there is a regrettable tendency in gay films to demean heterosexual love as inevitably second-best. That is not the case here, even though the central love affair is between men. Heath Ledger movingly conveys a love of his two daughters and a feeling of responsibility towards them. That’s another reason why it would be wrong to dismiss this as just a “gay cowboy film”. It’s a human one, and that makes all the difference.

Did I love this movie? Not quite. I wasn’t as moved by it as I ought to have been. This may be partly because I found myself uneasy about some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s more ill-advised moustaches, which suggest the cowboy that the Village People rejected.

But some of the dialogue between the two leads later on is a little too “on the nose” for my taste. The movie feels a little one-paced, and about a quarter of an hour too long. It runs over two hours, but it is based on a short story, and pretty much every point it’s going to make is adequately conveyed in the first 90 minutes.

The piece is melodramatic and could be said to wallow in misery. Although I admired it, I won’t be in a hurry to see it again. It’s certainly not for those who attend movies purely for entertainment. But the important question artistically is: is this a good movie? Is it intelligent and compassionate? Does it have believable characters and something to say? Is it beautifully crafted? And does it go beyond its gay theme to say something universal about love, whatever your sexual preference? To all these questions, the answer can only be a resounding “yes”.

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