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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (article first published : 2006-03-13)

Cowboys don't cry? They certainly do, some of the sensitive, lonesome and lovelorn ones, anyway. And, back at the ranch, some of the spur, stirrup and stetson set do a heck of a lot more than what's considered the norm - surely making John Wayne squirm in his grave - in Ang Lee's celebrated Brokeback Mountain.

This is the most talked about film so far this year, of course - one which packs quite an emotional punch as it lassoes the western genre and wrestles it down a path it ain't been before. Opening locally today, the controversial drama saddled up three Oscars recently (for Lee, best score and best adapted screenplay). This came after the film galloped off with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a clutch of Golden Award awards and universal praise. It's the story of two macho, hunky strangers in their 20s - the broody, hunched and taciturn Ennis (Heath Ledger) and the more animated, wiry Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal).

During the 60s, in Wyoming, the two strangers take a summer-long job tending sheep on the rugged mountain of the film title. It doesn't take long before the many quiet nights under the stars, with beans and whiskey, see friendship morph into an uncontrollable lust. Then, over the next two decades - when the otherwise conservative cowpokes have cantered off into the sunset to each marry and have children – lust slowly transforms into a love that dare not speak its name.

Based on a 1997 novella by Annie Prouix, Lee's handsome is a little longwinded and, with its many stunning vistas and frequent "mood" shots, has a tendency to be excessively pretty-pretty. A friend, rather amusingly, likened it all to one long, glossy Marlboro ad. However, don't let any of this put you off - Brokeback Mountain is a compelling, tender, elegant and well-acted drama, beautifully directed by Lee, without any want or need to sensationalise.

His film is both a tortured, intriguing love story and a deft examination of stifling stereotypes and constrained social values in an ultra-macho world. It's a drama free of cliché, increasingly poignant and most affecting as it probes the angst of its male leads, who meet for "fishing" trips over the years, their secrets and lies spurring bitterness and broken hearts between them and their spouses.

Jack's missus is a big-haired, rather tarty rodeo rider (an impressive Anne Hathaway, light years away from The Princess Diaries), while Ennis's other half is the hard-working, mousey Alma (an excellent Michelle Williams, light years away from Dawson's Creek). All in the cast excel and Gyllenhaal and Ledger, who becomes more and more a broken man and visibly withers before our eyes, have never been better. It gets a rating of 9/10. Billy Suter




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