Having fully deserved his Oscar nomination last year for his portrayal of a grieving, suicidal lover in Tom Ford's A Single Man, it'd be a foolish person indeed who'd back against Colin Firth landing the statuette this time out.
Were one to be cynical about it then it would be easy to point to a couple of aspects of The King's Speech which really tick the Academy's boxes: namely, a story about overcoming a disability and a period setting involving the British royal family. However, that would be a churlish approach to take when we're served up such an engaging, thoughtful and beautifully balanced film.
We begin in 1925 with Albert Duke of York walking, terrified, to a microphone to give the opening address to the crowd at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. The reason for his reluctance to speak quickly becomes clear, as he's revealed to have a chronic stammer which renders his message all but unintelligible and immediately has the viewer sympathising with the character.
Fast-forward nine years and, after several aborted remedies to cure his impediment, Albert's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the services of an unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The core of the film lies here, as not only does Logue try to deal with the Duke's stammer but a friendship develops between the pair. The initial aloofness and wariness on Albert's part is gradually broken down by Logue's forthright manner, a story strand not entirely dissimilar to 1997's Mrs Brown, in which Billy Connolly's blunt Scottish ghillie helped Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, overcome her grief after the death of her husband.
There's a wonderful supporting cast on hand too, with Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Timothy Spall all contributing, but this really is a showcase for Colin Firth.
He effortlessly conveys a growing sense of panic as his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne and he reluctantly becomes King George VI, as war with Germany looms and he's obliged to address his nation in a crucial radio speech.
The film certainly isn't without its lighter moments -- not least when Albert unleashes a torrent of swear words at Logue's urging, a scene which bizarrely earned the movie an R rating in the States -- but at heart it's a beautifully observed study of determination to overcome a major personal obstacle and the growth of an unlikely friendship. I trust Colin Firth will have somewhere nice to put his Oscar. HHHHI
Based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 Hours tells of how, in 2003, extreme sports enthusiast Aron Ralston (James Franco) headed off for a weekend of cycling and canyoning in Utah and, to put it mildly, got himself into a spot of difficulty.
Having reached the wilds of Blue John Canyon and taken two female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) for a swim in an underground lake, Ralston rather stupidly spurns their offer of heading back to a party, strikes out on his own, stumbles down a crevasse and finds himself with an 800lb boulder pinning his arm to the rockface. Ouch.
What ensues owes tremendous credit to both Boyle and Franco as they have to hold our attention for the guts of an hour with a single character trapped in a narrow cave.
Boyle holds his end up by cutting away to flashbacks and hallucinations in addition to capturing the ongoing situation, while Franco has quite a job to do, letting a potentially fatal set of circumstances dawn on Ralston until he's forced to make a terrible decision to survive.
If you're unaware of what Ralston had to do in order to escape certain death and go on to become an author and in-demand motivational speaker then I won't spoil it for you, other than to say that several scenes in the final third are not for the squeamish.
However, one of the chief problems with this very well-made movie is that while many viewers will applaud Ralston's actions as proof of the human ability to face down the most desperate of circumstances, there will be an equal number -- myself included -- who'll regard him as a reckless idiot for finding himself on his own in the wilderness without letting anyone know where he was going. Yep, he definitely should have gone to that party. HHHHI
THE NEXT THREE DAYS (Thriller. Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde. Directed by Paul Haggis. Cert 12A)
When the high-concept French thriller Pour Elle/Anything For Her was released in 2008 it was odds-on that a US remake would follow sooner or later. The story of how a mild-mannered schoolteacher quickly acquires the know-how to plan and execute a dramatic prison break when his wife is sent down for a murder he's convinced she didn't commit was always a tad on the Taken side of implausible but, with the weatherbeaten Vincent Lindon going to bat for the lovely Diane Kruger, there was a certain internal logic to proceedings.
Here, however, things don't quite hang together so convincingly, despite the skilled Paul Haggis at the helm and Russell Crowe bringing plenty of heft to the central role. Crowe is fine as the exasperated John Brennan, devastated when wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is hauled off by the Philadelphia police one morning accused of murdering her boss, but the lean thrills of the original are allowed to go flabby here, not least in the final third, where all the tension that's been built up is allowed to dissipate in a series of unnecessary chases and a too-pat coda which looks as if it was tacked on after a studio exec looked at the comments made after a test screening. HHHII