Film releases: January 7

Looking at stills of The King’s Speech before seeing it, I feared it might be the first turkey to survive Christmas – at least in the UK, where it opens tardily after the US and elsewhere, like a snow-delayed bird looking for a landing strip. All these English heritage actors: Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth, pale and basted-looking as the future George VI seeking a cure for his stammer. All these costumes. All this pomp searching for some circumstance.

By the film’s end I was in tears: a pathetic critic-thing whimpering in the half-dark, knocked into resistlessness by the power of storytelling. Apparently this story is all true. Prince “Bertie” (Firth) did hire a failed Australian actor, one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose only previous speech therapy credentials were treating shell-shocked soldiers back in Oz, to fix his plosives (“p-p-people”), iron out his “how now brown cows” and fit the imminent king for wartime oratory. Bertie’s brother David, alias Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), warmed the throne long enough only to abdicate, lured away by gay divorcee Mrs Simpson.

So Mr and Mrs Imminent Monarch (Bonham Carter, bringing wit and patrician piquancy to Queen Elizabeth, later Britain’s Queen Mum) bounce in and out of Logue’s seedy mansion flat, a palace of peeling walls and greasy furniture worthy of Graham Greene. Outlawing the nostrums tried by others, from cigarette smoking to Demosthenes-style pebbles in the mouth, Logue denounces his predecessors as idiots. The prince says several have been knighted. Logue says: “That makes it official then.” He institutionalises his own remedies: loud Mozart music, sitting on the royal heir’s stomach, digging up childhood traumas.

Skilfully directed by Tom Hooper and masterfully scripted by David Seidler, it is all utterly captivating. Firth hasn’t been this good since his last film (A Single Man): he just gets better and better. Whatever happened to the stodgy matinee idol whose only fame once came from wearing a wet shirt in a Jane Austen adaptation? Marvellously he mines for tears in himself and us. Marvellously he sounds the pain of monarchy, that privilege as unshakeable as slavery. He makes the conquest of a handicap as momentous as the conquest of an empire. Between them, he and Rush, and all the others, turn what might have been a piece of fustian royal history into a chunk of living, beating, feeling humanity.

The story outline of 127 Hours, first put to a studio, must have sounded like a psychopath’s riff on the song “Clementine”. “In a cavern/ In a canyon/ Excav-a-ting his own arm . . . ” A great-outdoors nut turned best-selling memoirist, Aron Ralston – this is the week’s second true story – was hiking in desert mountains when a rockfall trapped his arm at the bottom of a gully. Year, 2003. Place, Utah. Filmmaker Danny Boyle has seized the career moment afforded by Slumdog Millionaire, a success that licences anything, to put this unfilmable story on film.

Seemingly unfilmable or actually unfilmable? Probably, sadly, the latter. The main problem is that nothing happens. Nothing but the horrific self-surgery, which itself, for many, will be unwatchable. One reviewer walked out at the press show when the hero started sawing his arm with a penknife. (Shame on you, madam. You’re a critic. Hang in there.) Dozens in the US have fainted or exited pursued by nausea.

Before the pièce de revulsion there is a great deal of narrative padding, dynamically styled but dramatically inert. Ralston (James Franco) meets two backpacking babes and frolics with them in a rock pool. Ralston greets the disaster’s first impact with stunned stoicism. Ralston camcords his own soliloquies, has flashbacks to family and girlfriend (all colourless and generic). There are bits of philosophising: “This rock has been waiting for me all my life.” Ralston looks at his watch. He does this over and over. Is it for our benefit? We know it is 127 hours, Mr Boyle. We don’t have to count each one of them.

The radical solution would have been to invent a new hero. Give him a backstory, make him interesting, yahoo us into emotional involvement. Instead we have a great event with no acoustic. Franco acts his heart and soul out, as Ryan Reynolds did in Buried, a similar one-man agony opera in a confined space. But Reynolds, fictive, had a pack of gaudy subplots for company. Franco and Boyle, respecting their source and subject, take few liberties except the meaningless, cosmetic one of style. Lots of razzy cutting, split screens, and a few spliffs of rock music, which only prove that one kind of rock has no kinship with another.

The more Russell Crowe dashes about the scenery in movies, whether ancient Italy, Sherwood Forest or the Pittsburgh of The Next Three Days, the less he seems to lose weight. An overnourished teddy bear, his rueful grins chased by worried frowns, he carries all before him – rushing here, rushing there – in Paul “Crash” Haggis’s thriller, adapted from the French jailbreak drama Pour Elle. A husband thinks his murder-convicted wife (Elizabeth Banks) innocent. If he can’t prove her so, he’ll bust her out.

A lot of landscape and cityscape flashes past. After a slow start Haggis plays clever shell games with each plot twist. (It’s under here; no, it’s under there.) By the time Crowe puts his plan in motion – a pachyderm hero making his trunk call to providence – we are ready to lumber at high speed with him, his wife, his kid and Haggis’s go-for-broke story contrivances. Good fun for the last 90 minutes. Take a sandwich for the first 40. NA

Other releases

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, shot around the Maritime Alps of southern France, is intended as a homage to the Italian, mostly city-set giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s – tales of murder and detection influenced by opera and grand guignol.

One of the original giallo practitioners, Dario Argento (Suspiria), recently made a return to his old territory with a film named after the genre, a joyously campy tale of a psychotic taxi driver. Giallo was in English and starred Adrien Brody but still only made it as far as festivals, so this more or less plotless journey around the paranoid mind of Ana – as girl, teen, and woman – is unlikely to make a big splash. But with its excitable score (assembled from old gialli), expressionist colour palette and invasive close-ups, it is heady, head-scratching fun.

The Mexican actor Diego Luna, best-known for masturbating into an empty swimming pool in Y Tu Mamá También, has now directed Abel, a comedy that is creepy and amusing in just the right measures.

Abel is a troubled nine-year-old at home for a week after two years in a psychiatric ward. In his father’s absence, he assumes the role of head of the house, playing husband to his mother and father to his younger brother and older sister.

As in Rain Man, humour, pathos and dramatic interest are all derived from a character’s inability to comprehend his circumstances; we are invited to laugh, sympathise with and worry about the results of Abel’s misguidedness in quick succession.

The script, co-written by Luna and Augusto Mendoza, requires delicate handling; the director gets the tone, and changes in tone, just right. LR

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