127 hours, 90 mins, rated MA15+, opens in cinemas 10 February 2011.


(This is my review as published in the February issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

Every year at Oscar time there are two Academy Awards for sound in film: sound editing and sound mixing. And there are two awards for music: original score and original song. Yet quite often people say that they do not notice music in film, and, apart from the dialogue, they don’t really notice the sound design either.

So how important is sound and music in film?

In 127 Hours, the latest film directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008, 28 Days Later, 2002), both sound and music play important roles, for a very practical reason: apart from some scenes at the beginning and the end of the film, the action all takes place in one rather small place. So Boyle had to be as inventive as possible to hold our interest and evoke the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist. Boyle is talented and resourceful, and he has succeeded beautifully here.

The director is helped by at least three crucial collaborators. First, there’s actor James Franco, whose performance is extraordinary given the physical limitations of the role. Next, there’s not one, but two cinematographers: Anthony Dod Mantle (who shot Slumdog Millionaire for Boyle) and Enrique Chediak (who shot 28 Days Later). Both those films are outstanding for their visual style.

And the reason that most of the film takes place in one tiny spot? 127 Hours is the true story of 127 hours in the life of Aron Ralston, 27 years old, a keen mountain climber and canyoner, who is self-sufficient, fit, confident and something of a loner. One weekend, on a solo canyoning trip, he meets with an accident that it seems he won’t be able to cope with on his own: his arm is trapped between a cave wall and an 800-pound (360kg) boulder.

The film is based on Ralston’s best-selling memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the existence of which tells us that Ralston managed to survive his ordeal. But he did so by the most drastic of means: when he could not extricate his arm, he was forced to cut it off. I mention this so that the squeamish will know what they face if they see this film. The amputation is shown, and the process is graphic, but reasonably brief.

127 Hours is rewarding and uplifting. The film it most resembles is Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003, LSJ June 2004), the documentary/ recreation of the incredible return from the “dead” of Joe Simpson, after his climbing partner in the Andes cut their climbing rope, thinking Joe had died in a fall. As in Touching the Void, if you look beyond the grisly physical details, there is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and of extreme courage and endurance, with a man forced to examine his conscience and choose to have a future, no matter the cost.

Apart from the extraordinarily intimate portrayal of Ralston by actor James Franco, and the bonus of two cinematographers working seamlessly together, there is the sound and music. For original music, Boyle returns to another Slumdog Millionaire collaborator: A R Rahman (also famous for the music featured in the New Delhi Commonwealth Games opening and closing ceremonies).

Even more memorable for me is the incidental sound, which is magnified in significance because of the narrow world in which most of the film unfolds. The cry of a raven, a crack of thunder, the unexpected percussive sound of a drop into an underground pool: all these sounds, and more, loom large against the silence of the slot canyon that is Ralston’s prison.

So don’t let the visceral aspect of 127 Hours deter you: it is a well-realised film, exciting, suspenseful, beautiful, lyrical, challenging and rewarding. Make the effort!