Tragedy of What Could Be

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Review of 'Brokeback Mountain', director Ang Lee

It's been dubbed 'the gay cowboy movie', although the promoters prefer to talk about it as just a 'great American love story' - presumably for fear of scaring homophobic cinemagoers. Commentators, including Madonna, have described the two lead men as 'brave' for playing gay men. Is it braver than to play, say, a serial killer or a rapist? For all that has changed in attitudes since the early 1960s in which Brokeback Mountain is set, the reaction to the movie reveals much that hasn't. So it is poignant that it is set in Wyoming, the same state where a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was murdered in 1998.

But to dub this as a love story that just happens to have two men at its centre does not do it justice. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, the fact that it is centred on a gay relationship cannot be extricated from the power of the movie. For if a young man and woman had fallen in love on Brokeback Mountain one winter they might have just settled down, got married and lived happily ever after. The key to the story is that although the love these two men find for each other is something utterly overwhelming, they feel they can't express it - initially even to each other, but certainly not to the rest of the world.

The film opens with sweeping footage of the North American landscape on a grand scale in which humans are the minor players. The first shots of Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Heath (Ennis Del Mar) show them looking for work in a dust-filled yard. Initially it seems clich├ęd - two silent hunks posing, thumbs in belts, eyeing each other up from under their cowboy hats. Yet you are soon drawn into their lonely, often silent, world. As poor itinerant cowboys, their life is harsh and they can look no further than the next seasonal job. The job that changes their lives is when they're sent up Brokeback Mountain to watch over sheep together.

They ride up the mountain hunched up on their horses, literally buttoned up against the elements, but buttoned up emotionally too. For an all too brief time this is all to change. When they leave the mountain and part, the panoramic views are replaced with the small worlds of the lives the two men go on to live. Then the screen is filled with close shots of their faces, the small rooms and small minds of the time.

Brokeback Mountain is beautifully shot and the acting is superb. It feels slightly overlong, but you can indulge a director when he makes what is in so many other ways such a powerful movie. The tragedy of their situation is encapsulated in one scene where after years of snatched moments they are about to tear themselves away from each other and once again return to their families. The battered bivouac has been replaced with a modern tent and a pickup. Jack has married into a wealthy family - his clothes betray his comfortable lifestyle, but he is still longing to give it all up to live openly with Heath.

As they sit together Jack looks around and says, 'It could be like this - just like this - always.' He is mournful but also angry that Heath just can't do it. Jack wants to take the chance, but Heath's fear of the consequences of their relationship being discovered is visceral and overwhelming. The crushing effect of society feels tangible to the viewer too. I emerged from the cinema emotionally exhausted and deeply moved.