Some films make you cry, others make you feel like fainting, but they seldom manage to do both at the same time. That is what makes Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours special. The story is Aron Ralston’s (James Franco), a climber who cut off his right arm after five days trapped under a boulder. Boyle recreates it in gruesome detail, amputation and all, but this isn’t Werner Herzog-style “ordeal-porn”—it’s a glossy digital remaster of the original experience, with a thumping soundtrack and flurries of montage building to a euphoric climax.
The premise of 127 Hours could work just as well as a play. It’s like a more extreme version of A Christmas Carol: a man is held under a rock and visited by memories and regrets; his will to live and be good is shown to be so strong that he chops off his one of his limbs to get free. Yet Boyle uses his particular medium so skillfully that by the end it’s impossible to imagine the story being told any other way. Aron’s alternately exhilarated and despairing moods dictate the pace, with rapid cuts, long-range zooms, luscious close-ups and the intricate split-screen sequences all illuminating his state of mind as well as giving the whole thing a satisfying visual consistency.
Make no mistake, though, the amputation is the centrepiece, and when it comes, it’s sickening. Being squeamish, I covered my face as Aron broke his own arm, but I could still hear the pounding soundtrack accompanied by the sound of blunt knife on flesh and nauseated groans from journalists on all sides. Revulsion blended with high-grade feelgood cinema is a strong brew: recommended, even for weak stomachs.
Also upsetting, though sadly by virtue of its flatness, was Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a directionless sojourn in the day-to-day life of a Hollywood star suffering from existential angst. Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco might have made a compelling minor character in a film with a plot, but Coppola’s strings of procedural scenes—Johnny watching his daughter ice skate, pole dancers going through the motions, Johnny having his head cast in latex—don’t quite stand him up as a character. It’s a shame, because there are bits with real wit (the latex scene is excellent), and Elle Fanning is very good as the 11-year old daughter. From the perspective of a film fan, Coppola is causing unnecessary pain by going up against a canon of great films about the hinterlands of Hollywood, like Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, and Somewhere digs its grave even deeper when it triggers flashbacks to superior movies.
Erring on the conventional side was Infiltration, a film about Israeli conscripts in the fifties with a standard cast of characters at the barracks: the rebel, the clown, the ladies’ man, the weak one, the bully, and the classic cruel drill sergeant. Dear Doctor, a tender farce about the fraudulent doctor of a remote Japanese village, took its winning charm from lead actor, Tsurube Shôfukutei. His teddy-bear face, deep voice, and fondness for all the bizarre non-verbal sounds in Japanese made an enjoyable film even better.
And of course there was Mandelson: the real PM, the fly-on the wall account of Peter Mandelson during the last months of New Labour. Between fabulously vague, imperious briefings and somewhat evasive interviews, Hannah Rothschild captures glimpses of personality: Mandy handing a yoghurt pot to an aide, smoothing his shirt onto its hanger, or baby-stepping an embarrassed staffer through the process of deciphering his handwriting. As Rothschild observed at the screening, “making a film like this is like watching an animal in the zoo.” Vulnerable, powerful, clownish, cunning Mandelson is nothing if not compelling to watch, and she manages to get some—a little—way under the surface.
To read other dispatches from this year’s London Film Festival click here, here and here