Ang Lee’s stately, almost dour, drama is worthier than its inevitable soubriquet of “a gay western”. Anyone familiar with Lee’s output (Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm) will recognize the Taiwanese director’s steady hand and visual flair. Against the ironic, wide-open backdrop of Brokeback Mountain, Lee pursues his trademark exploration of intimacy or, in this case, the lack of it. Typically, the photography is impressive and relevant. The National Geographic locations and images are evocative in their own right but also serve as a counterpoint to the boys’ fettered attachment.
Yet for all the scope and intention, Brokeback Mountain is a dull movie. Lee’s films are usually slow-burners, and no less affecting for that. But here Lee makes two hours feel like three and the root cause is his failure to show us why these two lads care for each other and why we should either. What we see in their ‘summer of love’ is a raw passion, with bruising kisses and some rough and tumble horseplay. Precious little screen time is given to them actually getting to know each other. Which makes it hard to see why their attraction would last a season, let alone 20 years. In fact, it’s only in the scenes with their womenfolk that we see how likeable they can be – an impression you don’t get when they’re together.
Both Gyllenhaal and Ledger give committed, convincing performances. But too many of their lines are mumbled, distancing us further. The film only really ignites emotionally and dramatically when we see the inevitable effect of the boys’ tryst on Ledger’s wife (an excellent Michelle Williams, Ledger’s real-life fiancée). So while the set-up expects us to feel for the boys’ passionate estrangement - in a forbidding country where the 60s definitely weren’t swinging - it’s hard not to feel the sting of their own selfishness.
If there’s a universal theme here, and there is, it’s the warning that denying your feelings for one person while taking up with another, is a recipe for unhappiness all round. And on that score, Lee’s artistry works well. The raw power of the skies and landscapes around Brokeback Mountain are contrasted against a deadening hick-town drabness. The life you want against the life you get.
There’s poetry in it, for sure. But ultimately, in Brokeback Mountain, the lows outweigh the highs.