Brokeback Mountain

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(2005) ★★★

Sky Arts1: Thursday 23 July, 9.00pm

Young drifters Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are hired to herd sheep in the summer of 1963. Long, lonely nights out in the middle of nowhere – what’s a guy to do to keep warm? Gay cowboys are frowned upon in Wyoming, as you can imagine. Going from Hulk to Hunk, versatile Taiwanese director Ang Lee charts the tentative love affair of two men who protest a touch too much that they’re “not queer.” Hollywood’s dealt with the droving life before, of course, but never quite so contentiously. Nor with quite so much small talk under the big sky. Robert Mitchum cuddled up to Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners. Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup fought over Penelope Cruz in The Hi-Lo Country. Charlton Heston kept warm with a widder woman in Will Penny. Kirk Douglas snuggled up to his horse in Dalton Trumbo’s terrific Lonely are the Brave (More4, Wednesday 22 July, 11.20am). Brokeback Mountain’s melancholy mood matches the doleful style of Comes a Horseman, another ‘modern’ western casting a shadow on the open range. Ang Lee brings an uncritical anthroplogist’s eye to the country & western rituals of small-town life, while the guitar plinks on the soundtrack, underlying the sensitivity of it all. The men’s initial clinch is pretty much in murky silhouette (thanks, Ang) and more interesting is their abashed reaction to a momentary lapse of reason – Heath’s getting married, for gosh sakes. And they’re “not queer…” Hiding their feelings under wide-brimmed hats and behind halting sentences, they just kiss and cuddle, they cradle each other and wrestle in the dewy grass. It’s all very artistically shot, with beautiful framing of God’s own country (the vistas are wonderful but that’s actually Alberta standing in for Wyoming). Yet Annie Proulx’s lauded story seems unconvincing as the men – both unhappily married – maintain a periodic relationship over twenty years. Dowdy Michelle Williams suffers in silence, pretty Anne Hathaway hasn’t an inkling. The ageing process for the young cast is as shaky as the make-up jobs on Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant. Like the use of Bob Dylan’s maudlin Kennedy tribute He Was a Friend of Mine, sung by Willie Nelson over the closing credits, it’s kind of funny, though I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. Outside of The Dark Knight’s Joker, it will likely be for Brokeback Mountain that Heath Ledger will be most often recalled. Not only did it earn him an Oscar nod, but it gave a glimpse of what he might have become – his character ages 20 years in the story. Whichever way you look at it, Heath Ledger’s death has enshrined this film in the Giant shadow of James Dean. When Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash as Best Picture at the Academy Awards, many people acted as though some kind of crime had taken place. But before we get too excited, it’s as well to remember that Oscar is not always to be trusted. After all, this is the institution that picked Chicago over The Pianist, Titanic over LA Confidential, Gandhi over ET, Rocky over Taxi Driver… And Brokeback did win for adapted screenplay, director and music. The Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla (who scored the arthouse hits Amores Perros, 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries) won again for Babel in 2007, equalling the feat of Franz Waxman as the only composer to win Best Music Oscars in consecutive years, which Waxman managed for Sunset Blvd (1951) and A Place in the Sun (1952). Before Mr Santaolalla, John Williams (nominated about a million times) came closest to emulating Waxman when he won for Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977).

Certificate: 15
Duration: 134min