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Clooney and Bullock reach for the stars in stunning space epic

WHEN a director takes seven years to follow up his last picture, in this case the flawed but dazzling Children of Men, the next production will inevitably be tagged with the unwanted description 'troubled'.

Alfonso Cuaron's space story passed through various studios, yo-yo'd as regards budget and had a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood A and B-listers attach and withdraw from the project until it finally entered cinemas Stateside two months ago.

Such a difficult gestation usually bodes ill for the final product, but not in this case. Gravity is, quite simply, a stunning piece of work.

Cuaron and his team, particularly cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and effects expert Tim Webber, probably benefited from the delay, as with developments in CGI and 3D accelerating exponentially, they've been able to realise exactly what they wanted without anything looking cheap or gimmicky.

In fact, such is the thoroughly immersive visual off-world they've created that barely a minute into a staggering, 13-minute opening take, I found myself wondering "How the hell did they manage to film this in space?" Yep, it's that convincing.

The quite chilling line "Life is impossible in space" precedes that awe-inspiring opening as we join veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), nervous first-timer Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and mission specialist Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) as they carry out repairs to the Hubble telescope.

Floating and spinning 370 miles above an Earth which looks staggeringly beautiful as it passes below, we're reassured by cocky Kowalski's easygoing nature as he hopes to beat the record for a spacewalk and the way he gently keeps Stone focused on her task.

However, that feeling of serenity is shattered when Mission Control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, in a lovely nod to his role in Apollo 13) reports that a Russian satellite has exploded and debris is coming their way. In a frankly terrifying sequence, the resulting impact kills Shariff, destroys the shuttle they've travelled on and leaves Kowalski and Stone adrift in space. Now that's some way to start a movie.

What ensues is a race for survival, as the pair try to reach a Russian or Chinese space station before their oxygen supplies run out or they're hit by debris when it orbits the planet again.

Sandra Bullock is magnificent as Stone, as the script (co-written by the director and his son Jonas) gradually teases out parts of her back story, while George Clooney's supporting role is as solid as it has to be.

Gravity is probably the first film I've seen which really needs to be experienced in 3D and preferably on an IMAX screen, such is the scale of its achievement. It's quite a lean beast, too, coming in at just under 90 minutes, which is a credit to Alfonso Cuaron. As director, co-writer, producer and co-editor, this is clearly his baby.

Whether or not this review carries any weight I don't know, but Gravity should be seen by anyone who loves the movies – it's simply a stunning experience. And no, I still haven't figured out how they managed to shoot it in space.

5 Stars

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN Drama: Starring Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Gert Van Ramperberg, Nils de Caster, Robby Cleiren Director: Felix van Groeningen Cert: 16

The arc of a love affair, with all the joy and sadness that entails, forms the basis of this largely successful drama. The story of how banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) meet, marry, have a child, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), and deal with all that life has to throw at them is told using a fractured timeline which leaps backwards and forwards over the years.

Think of it as Blue Valentine, only in Belgium and with a bluegrass band never too far away from the action.

What life has to throw at this flawed but eminently likeable couple is a serious illness to their young daughter, a tragedy which has a more profound impact on Elise than her husband.

Although keeping the audience onside for most of the movie, director Felix van Groeningen does let things slip towards the end, permitting Didier to make an unlikely rant to an unbelievably tolerant audience at his band's concert and copping out with a finale which undoes much of the fine work that had gone before.

Still, for much of its running time The Broken Circle Breakdown remains true to the emotions and sentiments of the music which lies at its core.

3 Stars

IN FEAR Thriller: Starring Alice Englert, Ian de Caestecker, Allen Leech Director: Jeremy Lovering Cert: 16

For the first half hour or so of its rather trim 84-minute running time, writer-director Jeremy Lovering's debut feature manages to generate a fair amount of suspense.

The set-up is simple, as Tom (Iain de Caestecker) persuades Lucy (Alice Englert) to travel with him to a festival in Ireland, even though they've only known each other for a fortnight. As you do.

He persuades her to stay for a night at a hotel he's booked on the internet and there's some vague run-in with some locals in a country pub before the pair make their way towards their destination, only to find themselves driving around in circles in the dark as the petrol runs low.

It's at this stage that patience – the viewer's, that is – begins to wear thin as Lovering lobs teasing scares from out of the darkness without really driving the story anywhere.

The plot soon becomes riddled with holes that not even steals from The Hitcher, Gone and Wolf Creek can fill. The finale is not only ridiculous but pretentious, too – did the director give an unseen ending away in the title sequence? Despite the game efforts of the two leads, In Fear is a very frustrating affair indeed.

2 Stars