Not many films really deserve to be called "docudramas" – so few, in fact, that the word has come to mean "a fictional film based on real-life events" – but Touching the Void reclaims the term, expertly blending talking-head documentary and dramatic reenactments to tell its story the best way it can be told.
In 1985, mountain climbers Simon Yates and Joe Simpson were determined to scale a peak in the Peruvian Andes that had yet to be conquered. After a rough but successful climb up the mountain, they soon became reminded that 80% of all climbing accidents occur during the descent: Simpson had a horrible fall, which gave a nasty break to his leg; Yates, who couldn't see him or hear him, gave Simpson up for dead and cut his lifeline.
Since both climbers narrate their own story from the present day, we know that Simpson somehow survived his excruciating ordeal, so it's the details of that incredible survival that propel the story.
Not for those with acrophobia, claustrophobia, or a dislike of snow, Touching the Void is a harrowing and effective depiction of Simpson's survival. It's also a marvel to know that the filmmakers braved the forbidding elements to accurately recreate the actual events, warts and all, getting some truly awesome footage in the process.
If Touching the Void has any faults, it's Macdonald's self-conscious camera trickery during the last half-hour of the film, as he tries to convey Simpson's rapidly debilitating mental state due to pain, hypothermia, dehydration, and pure exhaustion. There is merit to Macdonald's method, but the bulk of the film is so straightforward that these visual effects are distracting.
On the whole, though, this is good scary entertainment with a surprising depth. It may not change your mind about the insanity of mountain climbers, but it will make you admire their fortitude.