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MOVIE REVIEW

'Brokeback' is an affecting study of stifled passion

Yes, it's the gay cowboy movie. Get over it.

The reason to see Ang Lee's ''Brokeback Mountain," and see it you should, isn't its hot-button topicality or its cultural cachet but simply that it's a very good movie, with a staggeringly fine performance by Heath Ledger.

At the same time, ''Brokeback" has already become the default ''best picture" in a weak year -- the one film that critics' groups and awards organizations can come to consensus on -- and that's overselling it a little. It's an Ang Lee movie: a chamber drama about inarticulate desires from one of the cooler and smarter customers currently working. The intimacy just happens to unfold against an epic Marlboro Man landscape (breathtakingly shot by Rodrigo Prieto), in ways that bring tragedy to the surface while keeping the audience at a certain remove.

''Brokeback Mountain" is based on the 1996 short story by Annie Proulx, and the script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana honorably expands on the writer's weathered prose. In the summer of 1963, two hard-luck young ranch hands named Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) sign up to work a flock of sheep in the high country of Wyoming; one is assigned to stay at base camp while the other baby-sits the sheep higher up -- it's Forest Service land, but rancher Randy Quaid is tired of having his stock picked off by coyotes.

Jack is a rodeo wannabe, just shy of a clown; Ennis is a taciturn piece of work engaged to a small-town girl named Alma (Michelle Williams). What happens between the two men builds slowly, then explodes, after which they retire to opposite corners. Their rough, impulsive coupling could have been a fight. It almost is. Lee films it with the studied frankness of a boxing match or a nature documentary.

The two share a blissful summer -- again, never speaking of what's happening between them because, as Ennis insists, ''I ain't no queer" -- and then return to ''normal" lives. Ennis marries Alma and has a couple of kids, while Jack hooks up with a rodeo-riding daddy's girl (Anne Hathaway, defiantly kicking over the traces of ''The Princess Diaries"). That retreating idyll looms larger and larger for both men -- the one true moment of human connection that neither can fully grasp or let go. They begin to take biannual ''fishing trips" up in the mountains.

''Brokeback" proceeds to edge forward over the course of two decades: children grow, wrinkles appear, the gulf between husbands and wives widens. The film quietly acknowledges an entire subculture of men who keep their sexuality (gay, bi, whatever) tucked carefully away while toeing a straight line. The perils of straying off that line are manifestly clear, even without Ennis's anecdote about the fate of a ranching ''couple" he knew in his childhood.

The film asks a lot of an audience -- not that cowboys might have physical feelings for each other but the more prosaic business of watching young actors age with the aid of make-up. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway get the short end of the stick; you're painfully aware they're 20-something stars wearing middle-aged hair. Gyllenhaal also plays the more callow of the two men, and, coincidentally or not, his performance doesn't dig as deep as you want it to.

But maybe anyone would look thin next to Ledger's Ennis Del Mar. The actor hunches over and pulls his emotions under his canvas coat; he doesn't age so much as slowly cave in. That's fitting: Ennis is both ennobled and shamed by feelings he doesn't possess words to describe. ''This thing we have" is the closest he comes, and yet it's the only real part of his life, despite the damage left in its wake. Ledger turns the classic iconography of the Western male -- a cowboy hat pulled low, a measured drawl that says no more than it absolutely has to -- into protective coloring. The genius of the performance is in how little he shows and how much he suggests.

The third sharp point of the movie's triangle is Williams as Alma, whose youth and spiritedness slowly drain away in the face of an infidelity she can't encompass. There's a beautiful low-rent weariness to the performance -- like something out of an Edward Hopper painting -- and with any justice this long-underrated actress will finally get some mainstream recognition.

''Brokeback" may be too polished for some people, too elegantly dispassionate in its study of choked passion. Its final image insists rather bluntly on the closets we build for ourselves. The movie sticks with you, though, as does its belief that love is more important than gender or culture or anything -- that it's important enough to be treasured in secret if necessary. Lee stays true to the cowboy stoicism of Proulx's final lines: ''Nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it." That's the tragedy here, and the strength.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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