Barry Norman on 127 Hours

Give that man a knighthood! Danny Boyle's survival movie is a triumph of direction and casting

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People who complain about being caught between a rock and a hard place really don’t know what they’re talking about – unless they happen to be Aron Ralston.

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In 2003, while out hiking in Utah, he fell down a narrow crevice and ended up with his right arm jammed immovably between a boulder and the wall of the canyon. And how did he react to this disaster? “Oops!” he said. That’s right – “Oops!” because as we learn during Danny Boyle’s absorbing movie, that’s the kind of bloke he is.

Where others – most of us, to be honest – would immediately collapse into total panic, he remained calm and phlegmatic and reviewed his situation. It really wasn’t good. He was somewhere in the middle of a wilderness and had told nobody where he was going or how long he would be away, so the chance of rescue was pretty well nil.

So what happened? Well, 127 hours – or more than five days – later he was free, having negotiated a 65ft wall minus much of his right arm, which he had cut off below the elbow using an inferior version of a Swiss Army knife. Then he hiked eight miles to civilisation.

It’s a remarkable, chilling story, but how do you tell it on film? How do you keep an audience interested in a character, who for most of the movie, is in exactly the same place?

Well, casting James Franco as Aron Ralston was a good start. He’s an intelligent, humorous actor who exactly captures not only the adventurous spirit and careless disregard for caution that got Ralston into this mess in the first place, but the courage, fortitude and optimism that eventually got him out of it.

The screenplay, by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, is good, too, showing the carefree way Ralston began his ill-fated adventure in the spectacular Utah scenery then, later, flashing back to his memories of happier times. And the scenes in which, trapped, he keeps his spirits up by talking into his video camera, at times acting both interviewer and interviewee on some imaginary daytime chat show, work very well. The result is something of a triumph.

What could have been a dull, static yarn is instead a lively, riveting movie, acted and directed with verve and skill, that leaves you wondering at the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Incidentally, may I be the first to congratulate Danny Boyle on his knighthood? I know he hasn’t got one yet but he’s the artistic director of the Olympic Games, for heaven’s sake. So long as he doesn’t make a total mess of it – and, knowing him, I’m sure he won’t – by this time next year he’s bound to be Sir Danny. 

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127 Hours is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm