Hollywood loves love stories. Take a look at your local cineplex and you'll find romantic comedies, a movie about a love affair between a ten-ton gorilla and a blonde chick, and even a romance between a landscape gardener and a coma victim. But up until Brokeback Mountain, we have never had a honest-to-goodness love story between a gay couple.* So, even if this film weren't any good, there would be a good chance of it getting recognised by the Academy on pure political correctness grounds. It is one of the many paradoxes in Hollywood: studio executives balk from financing ground-breaking dramas that tackle prejudice head-on. Instead, they pile money into sure-fire cash-earning gun-and-titty movies. However, when it comes to casting their votes for the Oscars, time and time again they vote for the very same "brave", "arty" movies.
Anyways, political correctness aside, Brokeback Mountain is among a handful of films that have made 2005 a vintage year for cinema. The movie tells the story of a twenty-year love affair between two cowboys, who cannot reveal their love for fear of violent reprisals. Unlike the heavy-handed movies, The Constant Gardener and Good Night and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain does not force its profundity onto the viewer. It tells an evocative story and allows the wider implications to resonate with the viewer rather than hitting us over the head with a civics lesson.
Two things should be noted about this movie. First, the breathtaking photography of Brokeback Mountain itself. The movie was shot by the Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prierto. He has shot a string of fantastic movies, including Amores Perros, Frida, 8 Mile, 25th Hour, 21 Grams and Alexander and surely deserves an Oscar for Brokeback. The second notable feature of this movie is the wonderful performance by Heath Ledger as Ennis Delmar, the shy and naive cowboy who is initiated into homosexuality by Jake Gyllenhaal. With this perfomance, Ledger has declared himself one of the finest actors of his generation.
The only real flaw I can find with Brokeback, and it is a flaw, is the somewhat weak performance of the "other" cowboy. Jake Gyllenhaal leapt to fame in cult-hit Donnie Darko and since then has been, well, underwhelming in mediocre flicks such as The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead and Proof. In those cases, I assumed that bad directors had failed to extract his talent, but in this case there is less excuse. Where Gyllenhaal's accent fluctuates and his acting looks mannered and obvious, Ledger is a study in subsuming the self to the role. If Gyllenhaal's acting, or lack thereof, prevents Brokeback from being a truly great movie, it is nonetheless a very good one. I urge you to go see it and if possible, on the biggest screen you can find.
Brokeback Mountain premiered at Venice, and has since gone on nationwide release in the US and on limited release in the UK. It goes on general release in the UK on the 13th January 2006, in France on the 18th January and in Germany on the 9th March.
*The cinephiles among you will point to the Oscar-winning drama, Boys Don't Cry, which featured a romance between a straight girl and another girl who pretended to be a boy. I think this doesn't count not because of the sexual niceties of what was going on but because Boys Don't Cry was more political drama than simple love story. In other words, there was far more screen time awarded to beating up the "freak" than to the relationship between the two girls.
The Annie Proulx short story on which Brokeback Mountain was based can be found, in full, here.