Fearing to love

Submitted by Anon on 15 January, 2006 - 11:16

Clive Bradley reviews Brokeback Mountain

The status of this film as a cultural event is obvious: a mainstream
Hollywood movie, starring handsome up-and-coming actors, by a highly
acclaimed film maker, about a gay love affair between two cowboys (in
which the characters actually have sex)... The last mainstream film
with a gay central character was Philadelphia, over ten years ago -
in which the Tom Hanks/Antonio Banderas relationship was rigorously
desexualised.

So something, at least, has moved on. Actors are no longer terrified
of playing gay; perhaps television has helped prove that audiences
will watch, and identify with, gay characters.
But is it any good as a movie?

Ang Lee's film stays very close to the short story by Annie Proulx on
which it is based. In the early sixties, two young cowboys (actually,
they're herding sheep) meet on Brokeback Mountain. In the cold and
drunken nights they begin a sexual relationship. They part; but four
years later, after each of them has married, the relationship is
revived. And over twenty years they meet to go "fishing" a few times
a year. Jack (Jake Gyllanhaal) wants them to settle down together.
Ennis (Heath Ledger) doesn't believe that's possible, and knows what
happens to guys like that. Their unhappiness poisons all the
relationships around them.

The main changes have been to beef up the women - not only the wives,
but also Ennis' eldest daughter, and a woman who is briefly his
girlfriend. Otherwise, even much of the sparse dialogue is taken
directly from the original story.

It's a story about sexual repression, and what it can do to people.
These are characters who rarely manage to articulate their feelings
(or say much at all: Jack's joke about how little Ennis says is one
of the first steps towards falling in love). And this, for sure, is
very effective. The moments where actual emotion comes boiling out
are the strongest in the film.

And the vast Wyoming landscapes have a kind of mythic potency which
gives the story universality: this isn't just about gay love in hick
America from the 1960s to the 1980s; it's about love, and the fear of
it, I suppose. It's easy to see why the film has appealed to a wide
audience.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Some critics have complained
that this is yet another story about gay characters who are
relentlessly miserable. But this is perverse. The film is an
assertion of the validity of gay love, and the consequences of
denying, or repressing, it. In George Bush's America, and in the
context of the debate there about 'gay marriage', this is something
worth saying.

It's a haunting film, beautifully shot, excellently acted, if
sometimes a little slow. Yet I have to say it didn't really move me.
There was something lacking. (I also have to say that I tend to like
Ang Lee's films better on the second viewing, so perhaps I am
speaking too soon). Ledger and Gyllenhaal are great - but still,
ultimately, I didn't really believe them.

A watershed, but not revolutionary.

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