Here come the Oscar contenders

Cert: 12A

RECENTLY missed out on the Best Actor gong? Check. Playing a monarch? You bet. With a disability? Hell yes. Colin Firth’s turn as tongue-tied stammerer George VI ticks so many Oscar boxes that it’s barely worth other contenders turning up at next month’s ceremony, whether he or the film are any good or not.

Thankfully, the film is classy and satisfying, and Firth is very good indeed. Sympathetic and aloof, pitiable and irascible, daunted by responsibility and fearful of failure, Firth gives us a King with no more control over his own destiny than over his speech. The abdication of his brother Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) to marry Wallis Simpson, the country’s inevitable slide into war with Germany, and the new duty of monarchs to deliver live radio broadcasts represent a historical tide upon which he’s swept helplessly along, while constantly undermined by a crippling stammer with its roots deep in his psyche.

Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unorthodox Australian speech therapist, to whom Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, cutting a glamorous dash as the future Queen Mum) turns in desperation. Firth’s Bertie (George VI’s birth name was Albert) forms a relationship with Logue of the kind he’s not used to: one in which both men are equals, using Christian names, forming a bond that can reach past the surface mechanics of the disability.

The film’s not perfect – the subtleties of the abdication scandal are skated over, and some of the historical exposition clunks. But it looks beautiful – director Tom Hooper (the Damned United) has an eye for sumptuous cinematic imagery, while keeping things measured – and is a funny and appealing look at a strange, unheralded story.

Firth is terrific but so too is Geoffrey Rush – polite, slightly eccentric, slightly bemused and passionate about his methods. It’s Rush, in fact, not Firth, who gives the film its lightness and charm.
Timothy Barber

Cert: 18

THE only person who might mount a serious challenge to Colin Firth on the Oscar front is James Franco, star of the latest movie from Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle.

As movies go, it’s one hell of an experience. Enjoyable? Well, not exactly – this is, after all, the story of Aron Ralston, the outdoor adventurer who in 2003 found himself stuck at the bottom of a remote Utah canyon with his arm pinned beneath a boulder. Ralston had to use a penknife to sever his own limb and save himself – it’s as terrifying and harrowing a subject as one can imagine, and Boyle doesn’t make it seem anything less.

But there’s more to the film than that. One might imagine that the story would make a charismatic documentary like Touching the Void, but a dramatic film about such a story is harder to conceive. Boyle, though, is just the man to eek adrenaline, imagination and soul from the unlikeliest of tales, and so it proves.

He uses every visual trick in the book, and invents a few new ones. We go rocketing through the desert with Ralston before his accident, meet other characters in Ralston’s life through his pain-induced hallucinations, and see his cocky, happy-go-lucky demeanour change to one of cold, problem-solving logic – Franco is brilliant. We face his decisions with him, and watch his rations drain away as he does, and yearn with him for escape into the vast landscape. When the moment of gruesome action comes, we don’t just see it, we hear the internal sound of pain in the most extraordinary way.

So no, not enjoyable. But compulsive, gripping, extraordinary and beautiful? All of those, and more. TB

Cert: 18

RUSSELL Crowe is a desperate man with a desperate plan in Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis’ mediocre thriller. Haggis opens with standard thriller fare – sinister police break up John Brennan’s (Crowe) family idyll by arresting his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), on suspicion of murder.

John thinks she’s innocent, and we’re inclined to agree; but the US legal system doesn’t and locks her up. When all legal avenues fail there’s only one solution: break her out.

Unfortunately, being a schoolteacher, John needs a little help from some friends in low places. Liam Neeson puts in his five minutes as a world-weary ex-con who’s managed to break out of jail several times. Next up is a foray into Pittsburgh’s sordid underworld to acquire fake ID and an encounter with a strangely prophetic deaf crook.

Then there’s a lengthy slog as John learns the tricks of the jail breaking trade – really, a montage would have sufficed.

As the film enters its final third, things briefly threaten to get interesting, with Lara’s assumed innocence called into question; but Haggis opts instead to play it safe and give us thriller fare that’s engaging in an entirely nuts and bolts kind of way. It’s a lengthy film that’s too content to wallow in its comfort zone, and becomes a chore to sit through.
Rhys Griffiths