"I ain't no queer," mumbles Heath Ledger's taciturn cowpoke as he buttons his pants. "Me neither!" replies Jake Gyllenhaal's wiry ranch hand as he dons his stetson. The night before, though, tells a different story in Ang Lee's masterly adap of Annie Proulx's 1997 novella - a heartbreaking tale of forbidden love between two men's men who can scarcely understand the emotions they're feeling, let alone articulate them.
Gay cowboys being rarely seen outside of the Village People, Brokeback Mountain is sure to ruffle a few feathers with its up-front depiction of homosexuals on the range. Yet the beauty of Lee's drama is how little that really matters once we get caught up in its characters' poignant saga, played out against vistas as stunning as any John Ford or Howard Hawks could muster.
In our 'enlightened' times, it's hard to appreciate the taboos Proulx's cowboys are breaking when they share a night of passion on a Wyoming hilltop. But the Midwest of the '60s is no place to be if you bat for the other side, forcing them to scurry back to domestic respectability the moment their tryst is discovered. Broadening the book's canvas to make more room for Ledger's mousy spouse Alma (Michelle Williams) and Gyllenhaal's vivacious wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana subtly reveal how their secrets and lies breed bitterness and heartache in their respective homesteads. And if the picture ultimately proves to be a longer haul than its slender narrative justifies, its sombre ending provides a salutary lesson that we suppress our true natures at our peril.
Strikingly lensed by Rodrigo Prieto, whose sweeping landscapes make the dim, closeted interiors feel all the more constricting, Lee's Western has all the epic scale the genre deserves without any of its tired clichés. And in Ledger it has a tragic hero of real stature, his rugged veneer slowly crumbling to show a broken man who recognises too late his last chance of happiness. Gyllenhaal also impresses as the more reckless of the duo, though his fine contribution is undermined in the latter stages by a confusing and poorly handled plot development.
Elsewhere, Randy Quaid has some choice moments as the surly rancher who inadvertently brings the leads together ("You boys sure found a way of making the time pass!"), while Hathaway's enjoyably tarty turn is a world away from The Princess Diaries. The real star, though, is Ang Lee himself, the Taiwanese director bouncing back from the bloated misfire of Hulk with a richly emotional love story that's crying out for Oscar recognition. To quote cowboy Jack Twist, anything less would be a "goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation".
Having scooped the Golden Lion at Venice, this brilliantly acted and unbearably sad romance will be the one to beat on Oscar night.