What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.
We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.
Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.
The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.
The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.
None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.
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We all make mistakes. We all have regrets. Regrets in particular are an undeniably universal part of the human condition and the lives of everyone; from rock star to street cleaner. It doesn’t matter if you’re the flawless Empress of dozens of kingdoms or a waitress in a greasy spoon; there will be things you wish you had done differently. Sometimes, when things get really bad, it’s a cliché phrase of woe to wish that the ground would swallow you up. Usually though you’re probably more likely to be hoping for a window onto the past. A hole big enough to crawl through, or a door if you’re feeling especially demanding. There’s not a soul on Earth, no matter how content they may profess to be, that wouldn’t consider the chance to go back. The chance to revisit a moment when everything changed.
Boiled down to its basics, this is what The Door is all about; that irrepressible human desire to erase what has been eternally written on the pages of history and memory. That craving for just one chance of redemption and the opportunity to take another path, a happier route, on the journey of life. In many ways The Door is an extremely simple tale but it’s one that uses fantasy to suggest dark and disturbing truths about human nature. It will simultaneously cut uncomfortably close to the core of your personal experience and be impossible to imagine and relate to.
The Door is a German film, telling the story of David Andernach, played by Mads Mikkelsen. I was dubious of Mikkelsen’s ability to carry this film off. I am most familiar with him from Casino Royale, in which he played a suitably menacing but also expectedly caricatured Le Chiffre. The way The Door is constructed requires intense focus on the personal viewpoint of Andernach and Mikkelsen is in practically every scene. You really notice it when things centre round his wife for a few minutes towards the climax. Thankfully his performance is varied, convincing and touching at times.
Also good are his wife Maja (Jessica Schwarz) and daughter Leonie (Valeria Eisenbart). Eisenbart is especially excellent as a child actor accurately expressing the knowing innocence of children, reacting to the sensational and dramatic events of the plot. Andernach’s mistress Gia is played by Heike Makatsch, and if I’m being really picky, which I guess I am, her performance was bland and predictable. She does play perhaps the least diverse of all the characters though, particularly when compared to the other more mysterious, male neighbour to the family.
However whilst poor performances could conceivably have ruined The Door, the really standout thing about this film is the story. It’s the sort of plot that can’t be justified in summary. I certainly can’t make my description of it much more alluring than the mildly interesting efforts of the production notes, without spoiling the surprise factor that made The Door so immensely enjoyable for me.
What I can tell you is that Andernach is a famous artist who is over the road fucking the neighbour one day when his daughter trips over her shoe laces and drowns in the family pool. Five years later Andernach is a broken man, begging his former wife for forgiveness. He tries to drown himself in the same pool, only to be rescued by a friend. He then follows a butterfly (his daughter wanted him to catch them with her but he chose a rendezvous with his mistress) to a hidden door that opens onto the day she died. He intends to simply save her and then perhaps alter his future, but he finds himself trapped in the past, lurching from one unintentional catastrophe to another.
In a way I’m tempted to write one review of The Door for those who have not seen it and one for after you’ve all hunted it down and enjoyed its one hour and thirty five minutes or so. It’s a film that raises a lot of big questions and emotional themes that would be interesting to discuss in more depth. You think you can work out its progression from the premise but you probably won’t. I will say that its poignant overall message seemed, for me at least, to be something along the lines of; we can all relive the past if we pay a big enough price and surrender enough of ourselves, but it’s a part of being human to let go and move on.
Trying to bottle up the raw feeling I got from The Door makes it sound far from creative or moving. But watching it with its tender score and acting and simple surprises, you are really sucked in. For once the glowing descriptions of the film adorning the marketing are totally apt and spot on; The Door is a “dark moral fable” and “an accomplished supernatural thriller”. You’ll be gripped by it, fascinated by it and haunted and moved by it. You’ll wonder what you’d do confronted with your own door.
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Let’s brainstorm awful ideas for movies. The sort of film that should never be made or would only be attempted by foolhardy, insufferable idiots. Mmm let’s see. It’s actually harder than you might think to think of truly terrible premises. First of all I thought of a bed ridden man who likes to photograph boxes or gravel or picture frames (not the images just the frames), or something unbelievably dull. But make him a bed ridden man and he suddenly has an element of sympathy and interest.
An ordinary man with a fascination for gravel or sand then, who likes to talk about this obsession to the few people in his life, other boring folk perhaps or patronising do-gooders. Actually scratch that. Maybe just a saucy account of a weekend away for Tony and Cherie, a blow-by-blow description of dinner at Gillian Mckeith’s or X Factor runner-up Ray Quinn’s struggle to publish a novel. In fact that one sounds quite funny.
Hang on I’ve got it. Take one guy; make him a bit of an arrogant, irritating prick. Then have him set off on some mad, impulsive trip without any means of contacting anyone. Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going; we need to keep human contact to an absolute minimum. When he’s penetrated suitably deep into the wilderness, way, way beyond civilisation or chance of rescue, trap him somehow. Like throw him down a canyon and have him wedged by a rock so he can’t move. Then pick a random amount of time, something silly but memorable like 89 or 127 hours, and just leave him stuck there, barely moving. That should be truly awful.
Imagine pitching this idea to producers. Not a chance of getting your dream realised. Unless maybe you’re Danny Boyle and the industry hangs on your every move since Slumdog Millionaire. And also let’s just say it’s a true story to properly get their juices flowing, their minds racing ahead in time to the prospect of awards success, emotional crowds gushing praise in theatres everywhere. Watching someone motionless and isolated shouldn’t work, and it couldn’t be further away from the vivid romp through India that was Slumdog, but somehow Boyle makes it not just tolerable but inspiring and riveting.
It certainly helps that the film itself is 94 minutes as opposed to the real time, 127 hours, long. It also helps that Boyle’s playful and distinctive direction grabs you from the very first scene. Knowing the claustrophobia that’s to come, Boyle peppers the opening to the film with visual interest and movement. Watching climber Aaron Ralston get ready is a marvellous experience through Boyle’s eyes.
The screen splits and divides into two or three, with intricate close ups of bottles filling with water and hands rooting around in drawers and shelves. These loving details are then impressively contrasted, first with an atmospheric night drive and then a frenetic bike ride across a bright orange, stunning Utah landscape. This scenery, with its back drop of sheer blue sky, is properly showcased with gorgeous wide shots. At the same time Ralston’s speeding movement is conveyed with fast editing and camerawork. When he comes off his bike to energetic music your adrenalin is really pumping.
The soundtrack to 127 Hours is terrifically good. A.R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog, really excels here with a difficult task. The opening and endings to the film are particularly wonderfully scored. I was not a fan of Slumdog’s score, or indeed the film itself, so it’s refreshing to see Boyle doing something completely different despite the easy options no doubt available to him now as an Oscar winner. He clearly cares about this incredible true story and set about bringing it faithfully to life. He couldn’t have done this half as well without the excellent James Franco.
Franco plays thrill seeking climber Ralston as both a slightly annoying arse and a clever, likeable everyman. In the early scenes he meets two female climbers and effortlessly impresses them with his knowledge of the area and daring sense of adventure. His youthful, flirty antics with them in startling, deep blue waters give the ordeal that follows far greater emotional resonance. Franco portrays the panic of being trapped superbly, as well as the calmer more reasoned moments. He’s completely believable and does well without other actors to spark off of to continually engage us.
The story also works so well due to flashbacks of Ralston’s life, showing his regrets and key memories of loved ones. These segments humanise Ralston; he isn’t just a physical machine stuffed with practical climbing knowledge, seeking an adrenalin fix. He’s made mistakes like all of us. And Boyle’s script and direction leaves the flashbacks realistically and suitably vague. In a starving, dying of thirst state delusions are bound to be half-baked. More importantly the gaps can be filled by the audience; everyone longs for their own friends and special, loved people in their lives, as Ralston goes through the levels of despair.
And passing through these levels he arrives eventually at resignation. Ever since the boulder trapped his arm he has quietly known what he’ll have to do, what he’ll have to endure and sacrifice, to escape back to his life. Incidentally the moment when the boulder falls and snares him is the only part of the film that feels less than real, as the rock bounces for a moment like the polystyrene prop it probably was. Apart from this the close, stuffy, handheld camerawork injects genuine realism alongside the fantasies.
And the moment when he cuts through his arm, the single headline grabbing fact either attracting or repelling viewers, was believable. What was refreshing was that on a number of occasions you think he’s going to, but doesn’t. The film keeps you on its toes, waiting for the pivotal moment, and when it comes it shocks you and continues to shock as he battles through the unimaginable pain.
Whilst the gore shouldn’t disappoint those seeking it, the blood and horror wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. I’m normally quite prone to sickness at such things but I barely looked away. It’s undoubtedly horrific but unavoidably compelling too. And crucially 127 Hours isn’t about a guy cutting his arm off. It also doesn’t have any other overriding, commanding themes and messages. The beauty of the story is that it can be about whatever you want. And whatever you make it about in your own head, the eventual rescue is as uplifting as cinema can be.
I’ve seen six of the ten films on the Oscar Best Picture list now. Of these six, 127 Hours is only better than Inception in my opinion. Black Swan I enjoyed the most and The King’s Speech, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are all better films in their own ways. However the true story behind 127 Hours is more remarkable than any of these tales, despite the fact its circumstances inevitably limit the scope and entertainment value of the film. Some critics have unfairly suggested 127 Hours only made it onto the shortlist because Boyle is a past winner. It’s a film that excellently and faithfully brings to life an amazing true story, with directorial flourish. And at times, thanks to Franco’s charm, there are surprising laughs to get you through. It doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture, but it more than warrants its nomination.
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