Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
Running time: 134 mins
When rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and ranch hand Ennis del Mar (Ledger) sign up for summer jobs with employer Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) in 1963 they are assigned the job of watching over sheep as herder and camp tender on Brokeback Mountain. Whilst there they find friendship which soon turns to love. Although this is fine away from society, they know that prejudice won’t allow their relationship to continue after the idyllic summer has ended. Brokeback Mountain is their ill-fated love story, following the pair through their half-hearted marriages whilst they live for their occasional clandestine meetings.
Because of its content, i.e. a pair of "cowboys" (hitherto always depicted as pillars of heterosexual masculinity) falling in love, this film has been subject to much anticipation ahead of its release, invariably being referred to and dismissed as a "gay western". However, what on paper could have been a disaster if mishandled has been turned into one of the best, genuine and not to mention most important, love stories to be put to screen.
The tale translates to film surprisingly well from award-winning authoress Anne Proulx's short story. Credit for this must go to screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana who have given flesh to the bones of Proulx's story. Whilst adaptations of literature usually means deciding which bits to tear out (often to the story’s detriment), here the writers had the task of adding depth to the characters and embellishing the storyline which the pair have done seamlessly very much in the spirit of the source material. Ang Lee’s careful pacing is also pivotal, easing the plot in gently and focusing on character development and setting the scene (with some breathtaking vistas of the mountain itself) rather than plunging straight into passion of a nature which a section of audiences may have misgivings about. Although hardly gratuitous, such scenes are bravely tackled and leave little to the imagination.
The acting by all is truly superb. Ledger portrays the taciturn Ennis excellently and brings great complexity to the character, even if his authentic tight-lipped delivery does make his lines a little tough to decipher on occasion. Gyllenhaal is equally impressive as the more optimistic and extrovert Jack, and strong performances also come from Williams and Hathaway as the pair’s wives, the former’s depiction of her confusion and trying to make sense of Ennis' behaviour being particularly notable. The audience’s heart is always with the star-crossed lovers, a particular achievement since they are not inherently likable people in terms of their actions towards their respective families, for example.
Dispelling the perception of being simply a "gay western", the film doesn’t really wholeheartedly fit into either category. Although it is socially important that a gay love story is enjoying a mainstream airing rather than being an arthouse film, it transcends the issue of sexuality. Rather, it is an excellently-told tale of two lovers whose love cannot be fulfilled, which can be universally related to and enjoyed by anyone regardless of sexual orientation.