Casual ranch-hand Ennis (Heath Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet on a seasonal job at Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain in the summer of 1963, looking after a flock of sheep. They forge the camaraderie of isolated men, but it soon turns into something more intense. They remain in contact through two decades, even after Ennis weds his childhood sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams). Over in Texas, Jack meets and marries rodeo queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Both couples have children. If confused at first about their affection for each other, the men continue to keep up appearances as fishing buddies, meeting a few times over each year, as they journey through lives never fulfilled, often conflicted, yet always drawn together.
 

5
A compassionate story of sexuality and social pressure

Ang Lee's latest film is Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winning author E. Annie Proulx. It caught the eye of screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana when it was published in the New Yorker in 1997 and their adaptation is exquisite, perfectly capturing the language and mood of Proulx's short story.

"There's something inherently human and real about this story"

It's 1963 and Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar – Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, find work herding sheep on the isolated Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Ennis (his name means island), is a quietly spoken man, who chews his words, while Jack is his opposite, a confident, aspiring rodeo rider. They gradually get to know each other over whiskey and the campfire and it doesn't take long for their new friendship to shift into something far more intimate and fiercely emotional. The season ends and they go their separate ways, getting married and raising families. Ennis weds his teenage sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams) and struggles to provide for his wife and two daughters. Jack marries Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and gets a job in her father's business. Catching up four years later, they discover that their bond is as strong as ever. They continue to see each other on pseudo fishing trips and the years become decades. It's a tortured relationship and Ennis particularly, denies his feelings. A childhood trauma, where he was forced to look at the torn body of man, murdered for being gay, prevents him from following Jack's suggestions that they get a ranch together.

This film is so moving it's almost painful and not once did I feel I was being emotionally manipulated. That's the skill of Ang Lee's subtle and tender direction. It's almost incredible how he has managed to capture the mood and desolation of Proulx's short story, breathing life into the words. Even against the vastness of the landscape, Ang Lee creates a constant feeling of claustrophobia. He has a unique ability to understand landscapes and characters, regardless of the setting or period and is able to switch with ease from a period epic like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, to American suburbia in the '70s with The Ice Storm and then to the windswept mountains of Wyoming. That ease is because, even though these films may seem very different to each other, they connect because Lee selects stories that follow similar territory or themes.

 

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His films explore the conflict between an individuals' independence and social pressures and obligations. In Brokeback Mountain, Lee's compassion for his characters, without fear of their sexuality is equally matched by Ledger and Gyllenhaal's performances, which are vulnerable and impressive. Likewise, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams transformations are just as affecting and one of the film's strength is in showing us that the victims here are not just the two men, but their wives as well and their characters are wonderfully fleshed out from the short story. There have been a few, well known films of late that depict violent intolerance to people based on their gender identity or sexuality. They include the true stories of Brandon Teena (Boys Don't Cry) and the story of Matthew Shepard, (the film and play, The Laramie Project) about the young gay man murdered in Wyoming. That these incidents happened so recently makes the story of Brokeback Mountain even more tragic. Ennis and Jack's story started in the Sixties and little has changed.

This film proves that everybody is damaged as a result of bigotry. Brokeback Mountain is profound because it's about what is unspoken and what isn't seen. There's something inherently human and real about this story, something universal. It's so effective that it's one of those stories that forces you to evaluate on your choices in life' how much would you go out on a limb to be with someone that you truly love. And to all those who enjoy boxing this film as simplistically 'the Gay Cowboy' movie and make jibes that the film puts the poke into cowpoke ' you're missing the point and perhaps are perpetuating the homophobia, because these ill thought through comments reduce what is a real and tragic love story to a joke. It's flippant, refusing to take Ennis and Jack's love for one another seriously. This is not simply a 'gay' love story, it's a beautiful love story - full stop and I've been waiting to see something like this for a long time.

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Ang Lee and James Schamus reflect on 'Brokeback Mountain'
Variety's Marriage Equality issue profiles the role Hollywood has played in promoting gay rights, following the historic gay marriage ruling in the US. Director Ang Lee and producer James Schamus reflect on 'Brokeback Mountain', a decade after it was made.

 

Watch 'Brokeback Mountain' 

SBS: Monday February 19 2018, 8.30pm
Also available at SBS on Demand