There’s gold in them there hills!

THE IDEA of gay cowboys may induce sniggers in the back row and cringes from the males in the audience, but Brokeback Mountain is a truly epic romance. It’s a testament to Ang Lee’s sensitive handling of the subject and the fearless, vulnerable performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. This love story between two ranch hands stands for something essentially human, raw and exquisite.

In 1963 the sexual revolution has yet to hit Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), in a long, wordless sequence check each other out, in a parking lot, as they wait to apply for a job driving a herd of sheep into the Rockies over the summer. They are standoffish at first, due to their unspoken, uneasy attraction, but there’s no stopping the inevitable and, once cut-off from civilisation, the two subtly different men forge a strong friendship on Brokeback Mountain. One drunken night their friendship goes a step further, becoming more physical, a development neither has the words to discuss or the self-awareness to understand.

They enjoy a summer of love that brands both their souls, experiencing the Eden that will tantalise and devastate the rest of their lives. Ennis and Jack are meant for each other, but mid-20th century America isn’t ready for love between two men. The cowboy way is to get hitched, raise a litter of young’uns and wrangle enough money to keep the cornbread on the table, so Ennis and Jack go their separate ways, into lives made miserable because they’re apart. Jack pairs up with a rodeo princess, Lureen (Hathaway) with whom he has a son and Ennis marries Alma (Williams) and fathers a couple of kids. In their aim to conform to social demands, they victimise the women they trick into becoming their wives. Alma mistakes Ennis’ detachment for stern machismo, bearing his children but not his affection. Jack marries Lureen not for her looks and personality, but for her father’s business connections. Jack figures if he can’t be happy, he might as well be rich. They slog on through marriage, children and work, arranging to meet up for a fishing trip. When they meet, both are overcome with longing for each other and kiss, a kiss which is spotted by Alma who, in one heartbreaking glance, understands why her marriage will never work.

Snatching fortnights together whenever they can, Ennis and Jack carry on their sexual relationship in secret over several years on Brokeback Mountain, their personal Eden from an intolerant society. Jack suggests they buy a ranch together and live in seclusion from the rest of the ignorant world, but Ennis shoots him down. He is wiser, and can’t forget what happened to a gay couple he once knew as a child.

There is always an aching claustrophobia about their predicament, poignantly offset by sweeping mountain vistas, reflecting the heartbreak and beauty of their tortured love affair without resorting to sentimentality and Ledger does the best work of his career with his shy introspective interpretation of his character.

No one should be cringing or sniggering now, Brokeback Mountain has earned universal rave reviews on its US release, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, been nominated for seven Golden Globes and now appears to be the strong favourite to win Best Film at the Oscars.