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Review: Brilliant 'Brokeback'

Groundbreaking film one of best of the year

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

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"Brokeback Mountain" stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys who embark on an affair.

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'Brokeback Mountain'

Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid

Directed by: Ang Lee

Screenplay by: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx

Studio: Focus Features

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(CNN) -- The script for "Brokeback Mountain," based on the short story by Annie Proulx, was called the best non-produced screenplay in Hollywood as it floated for seven years through the executive suites of all the major studios. It had also gained the odious nickname of "the gay cowboy movie," which made the film toxic to many.

Both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had seen the screenplay, by the writing team of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and had been impressed with the results. But it still took two little words whispered into their ears to make them finally sign on to the project. Those two words were Ang Lee.

Lee is one of the most respected directors working today. His films include "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Hulk." He had also handled another film that explored gay subject matter, "The Wedding Banquet," to great critical acclaim.

Lee is a sublime storyteller, and after all isn't that what a movie is all about?

In the case of "Brokeback Mountain," all the talent pays off. The combination of the terrific script, Lee's sensitive and precise direction, and the dynamic acting talents of Ledger, as ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, and Gyllenhaal, as rodeo cowboy Jack Twist, has resulted in an exquisitely crafted and ultimately melancholy love story -- epic in scope and intensely intimate at the same time.

Quite simply, this is one of the best films of the year.

To label "Brokeback Mountain" as "the gay cowboy movie" does a great disservice to its haunting love story, stretching over decades, which survived in a time and place in which the two men's feelings for each other were utterly taboo.

Lee promised to not back off from the physical relationship between the two men and to their credit Ledger and Gyllenhaal pull no punches when it comes to the kissing scenes. They also pull no punches when it comes to an actual fight scene between the two of them.

The ties that bind

Neither Ennis nor Jack identify themselves as gay, but after spending a lonely summer on Brokeback Mountain tending sheep for ranch owner Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), their slowly emerging emotional bond turns physical when a booze-driven, impromptu primal urge takes over one night. This torrid sexual encounter, tastefully filmed, shames and excites them in equal measure, but is barely acknowledged in the light of day.

Ennis manages to mumble "You know I ain't queer," to which Jack replies, "Me neither."

But their repressed passion for each other continues throughout the summer. When they finally part, both think it's forever.

Ennis remains in Wyoming and marries his long-time sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and produces two daughters. Jack continues to ride the rodeo circuit and marries the winsome rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), a paring which also includes a job with her rich father.

Four years pass and one day Ennis receives a note from Jack saying he's going to be passing through and would like to see him. The moment they see each other it's clear their physical attraction has not diminished, and they find themselves kissing passionately. This act is witnessed by a shocked Alma, who has no context in her somewhat limited life experience to understand the scene. She decides to ignore it.

But both men now know that their love for each other -- while impossible to acknowledge to the outside world -- is a potent combination. They arrange to see each other once a year under the pretense of fishing trips.

Over the years Jack tries unsuccessfully to get Ennis to come with him and build a life on their own, but Ennis rejects him every time. The final result is achingly sad.

Great performances

"Brokeback Mountain" may be a hard sell to the general public, though it's earned plenty of critical acclaim -- including the top award at the Venice Film Festival. It's also probably on Oscar's best picture radar.

The performances are terrific. Ledger is taciturn and brilliantly understated. Ennis is a man who can not access his emotions, and Ledger's most powerful moments come with no dialogue; what isn't said speaks volumes. Just a gesture, a shrug, or momentary glance at Jack conveys what many actors -- and scripts -- would need pages of words to achieve.

Gyllenhaal also delivers his best performance to date, and with another big film opening this year, "Jarhead," his stardom is definitely on the rise.

But the two women in the film, Williams and Hathaway, also deserve a lot of credit for adding to the emotional depth this wonderful film achieves. Their roles were greatly expanded from Proulx's short story and the balance of their relationships with their husbands -- and their husband's deep ties to each other -- greatly enrich this unique and brilliant film.

Human beings have a deep need to love and to be loved in return. "Brokeback Mountain" celebrates that need without making any moral judgments. One line in the film sums it all up: "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it."

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