Annie Proulx's beautiful, delicate short story "Brokeback Mountain," which first appeared to wide acclaim in The New Yorker in 1997, has been transformed into a beautiful, delicate movie under the masterly direction of Ang Lee. It's also a landmark in gay cinema, a groundbreaking picture with the power to touch a general audience the way the more didactic Philadelphia did in 1993. The film dares to posit a romantic relationship between two rugged men of the West, and the barriers that thwart their love are the very same that may prevent this excellent picture from reaching a broad demographic.

The film begins in 1963, as two taciturn young men, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are hired by a rancher to work as sheepherders for the summer on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. Their routine is tedious and lonely, and the two inevitably bond just to alleviate the boredom. One chilly night, after more than a few drinks, Jack persuades Ennis to sleep inside his tent and, as if sparked by an unconscious force, the relationship turns physical. Each denies being "queer"-"This is a one-shot thing we got going on here," Ennis insists-but as the season continues, they're unable to resist their powerful attraction.

Ennis has a fiancée, Alma (Michelle Williams), waiting for him at home, and soon after the summer job ends, he marries and begins raising a family. Four years and two daughters later, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack asking if he'd like to get together. ("You bet" is Ennis' terse return reply.) Their passionate reunion, witnessed at the window by Alma, reveals just how much desire-and how much of themselves-they've been suppressing.

Jack, too, is now married, to a former Texas rodeo queen, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and has a young son and a job with Lureen's father. The men's only chance to be alone together is a series of sporadic "fishing trips." The more idealistic Jack dreams of the two of them starting a ranch together, but Ennis can't see past the danger of that kind of setup, having witnessed the aftermath of a homophobic murder while a young child. ("If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it" is his philosophy.) Eventually, Ennis' marriage falls apart, but the demands of child support and earning a decent wage keep his rendezvous with Jack far too infrequent. Their love story ultimately reaches a heartbreaking end that is powerfully translated from Proulx's original text.

The only thing missing from the film is the pleasure of Proulx's eloquent descriptions of the Western landscapes, but it's hard to imagine a more faithful adaptation of this instant-classic short story. Director Lee (Sense and Sensibility; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) isn't afraid to take his time with the initial scenes on Brokeback Mountain, creating a vivid picture of the sheepherding life and making the unconventional relationship that develops between Ennis and Jack seem almost inevitable. Working from a screenplay by another great American author, Larry McMurtry, and his partner Diana Ossana, Lee makes every scene and character feel credible and authentic; that verisimilitude results in so much more than what some pundits are calling "the gay cowboy movie."

Following his strong performances in Monster's Ball and the underrated Ned Kelly, Brokeback Mountain makes it clear that Heath Ledger is one of the most gifted young actors in movies today. He burrows into the pain, repression and red-hot longing of Ennis with a brilliantly modulated performance that's never showy and always nakedly vulnerable. As the less complex and emotionally scarred Jack, Gyllenhaal has the secondary role, but he fully embodies the character envisioned by Proulx and, like Ledger, commits to this gay character without a trace of self-consciousness. Williams, formerly of "Dawson's Creek," is terrifically poignant as Ennis' deceived, neglected wife, and onetime Disney royal Hathaway is perfectly cast as a pampered princess of the Texas kind. Randy Quaid is also a hoot as the mercenary, none-too-friendly rancher who first hires the boys.
Will audiences support Brokeback Mountain, destined to be one of the most acclaimed movies of the year? The only thing they need to fear is a change of heart.

-Kevin Lally