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‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a heartbreaker

Heath Ledger is a revelation in his role as a laconic cowboy who falls in love

When Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” appeared nearly a decade ago in The New Yorker, it was instantly recognized as a heartbreaking masterpiece — and the work of one person.

Now it’s a movie, the work of several artists working at the peak of their powers, yet it retains the singular quality of Proulx’s slender story. The script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana expands Proulx’s 30 pages to a 134-minute film, yet there is no fat, thanks in great part to Ang Lee’s brilliantly austere direction.

The cast is flawless, beginning with Heath Ledger’s near-miraculous performance as Ennis Del Mar, a laconic ranch hand who ages two decades as he wrestles with his passionate attachment to another man, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Neither actor has previously been asked to take the risks they take here. While Gyllenhaal has always seemed game enough, and he’s wonderfully tender in a difficult role, Ledger turns out to be the revelation.

Nothing in his earlier performances in a series of high-profile films (“The Four Feathers,” “Monster’s Ball”) has suggested the imagination and depth of commitment he brings to “Brokeback Mountain.” Ennis is rigid, monumentally repressed, almost comically spare with words, and his rare expressions of opinion are mostly mumbled in a muted voice.

Ledger embraces the anti-social nature of the man while demonstrating that actions always speak louder than words with Ennis. He may claim that his relationship with Jack is an isolated event, an interruption in his plan to marry and raise a family, but his true feelings come to the surface when he breaks down the moment he’s separated from Jack for the first time.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Ennis’ frustrated, initially clueless wife, Alma. Anne Hathaway adds welcome nuances to the potentially one-note role of Jack’s wife, Lureen, whose lusty pursuit of Jack gradually turns into middle-aged indifference. Kate Mara is touching as Ennis’ grown-up daughter, Alma Jr., who works even harder than her mother to get past Ennis’ macho cowboy exterior.

They help to make this story as much of a tragedy for the women involved as it is for the men. The wives and kids are helpless; it hardly matters if they know or suspect what’s happened to their families. Jack and Ennis, who begin their affair as teenagers in 1963, are just as trapped by the restrictions of the period. Ennis, who is traumatized by childhood memories of a homophobic murder, is simply unable to consider Jack’s offer of a life together.

“Brokeback Mountain” carries echoes of “The Wedding Banquet,” its director’s previous tale of two men hiding their love, as well as McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show,” which dealt with two close friends who lose their only father figure. (One member of the “Picture Show” cast, Randy Quaid, turns up in a key role as the disapproving Wyoming trail boss who inadvertently brings Jack and Ennis together by hiring them.)

Yet in the end it’s Proulx’s vision that survives and drives every scene. What you take away from the story and the film is her intense focus on a forbidden hunger that will not be denied.