Brokeback Mountain

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 May

First same-sex marriage in US, 2004

On this day in 2004, Bostonians Tom Weikle, 53, and Joe Rogers, 55, became the first same sex couple to marry in the United States. They had been together for 25 years and were taking advantage of the change in legislation, Massachusetts being the first state in the US to allow marriage between people of the same sex.

Though the US constitution was clear in its position on the “unalienable right… to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, many states had started countering the change of opinion in favour of same-sex marriage by passing “defence of marriage” acts. Indeed, President Bush had come out strongly in favour of constitutional amendments to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges,” said Bush.

Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir: Ang Lee)

Ang Lee’s previous western, 1999’s Ride with the Devil, had been a revisionist affair, adding a layer of identity politics to the standard issue guns’n’horses. He’d followed that with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a kung fu film with an unusual romantic element. Then came Hulk, which not only lost the “The”, but also delivered an unusually thoughtful superhero (is he even a hero?) movie. But even with all these signs that Lee’s interest was in pushing genres into hitherto uncharted territory, was anyone ready for the gay cowboy movie?

Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two rough tough guys, all hats and check shirts, who finally get physical on a mountain, drunk, some days into a job tending sheep. They also fall in love, though neither says it. Years pass, the men get married to women. Settle down. Their brief dalliance is forgotten, until it is suddenly re-ignited, becomes semi-regular and both of them come to some acceptance of what they have together. Not that they tell their wives, who find out anyway. And that’s it, in plot terms, at least.

There’s an honesty, loneliness and sadness at the core of Brokeback Mountain that will cut to the heart of all but the most fervent gay hater. It’s there in Annie Proulx’s original short story – and yes, the film does sometimes feel like a short story that’s been over-extended – and it’s there in the performances of the two leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the more flamboyant of the two – the gay one, if you like. Heath Ledger is the one who is “turned”, a man so taciturn that he can barely get his words out, or his feelings. Whether Ledger is in fact turned or whether the feelings he has for other men, or another man at least, are buried deeper than he can know, is one of the little knots that the film explores.

Matching these two in terms of heft if not screen time are Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the two spouses who become increasingly suspicious about their husband’s “fishing trips”, Williams in particular knocking it out of the park in the scene where she confronts Jack (Gyllenhaal) about his relationship with Ennis (Ledger).

It’s an incredibly mournful film, broken in fact, which is why it didn’t seem to stir up quite as much animosity as might have been expected when it was released. And because in the end it isn’t really about being gay at all; it’s about shared secrets and love, something most people can relate to.

Why Watch?

  • Great performances all round
  • Winner of three Oscars
  • Rodrigo Prieto’s sensitive cinematography
  • A tricky subject handled with aplomb

Brokeback Mountain – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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