The customary surprise film on the final Sunday of the London film festival fortnight is always the fastest-selling ticket in town (last year's pick wound up being the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men). And this year's selection looks to have once more thrown up an Oscar-winner-in-waiting. At the heart of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is an underdog's knockout performance from Mickey Rourke (yes, really!), as the just-about washed-up wrestler striving to stage a comeback 20 years after his glory moment. It may just prove to do the same for Rourke's until-now written-off career, come the awards season in the New Year. It is a frank, effective picture that takes the small-time, staged wrestling circuit as its subject; the story moulded from the shambling putty body of one-time champ Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke). So far from his ambitious but abstruse fever dream of a film, 2006's The Fountain, and his dazzling, high-tone 2000 breakthrough Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky's direction here is economic and sparse. I can see why it won him the Golden Lion at this year's Venice film festival. Other recent recipients of Europe's most prestigious arthouse film prize - Vera Drake, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution coming to mind - exhibit a similarly stark aesthetic. Often, just a solitary, handheld tracking shot follows Randy from behind (a nice visual schema that hints at an unrelenting past), as he goes from his New Jersey trailer to his part-time duties at the grocery store (watch out for the astonishing deli counter sequence: it is the stuff of high drama), to weekend treks out to two-bit gyms where he vies for new small glories with other has-been Hulk Hogans. In between those wince-inducing ringside scenes (filmed, quite reverently, as grand, baroque panoramas of bodily abuse), the drama is stock fairy tale and sits at odds with the hyperrealist imagery. Under docu-cinematographer Maryse Alberti's graphic, overcast tones, Randy attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (a sullen, one-note Evan Rachel Wood) - and woo his single-mother stripper friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who takes a paper-thin stripper-with-a-conscience stereotype, spins something utterly moving from it, and who too deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here). It is she who ends up cheering him on to a new state of graceful dignity. The final reel is as surprising as all that came before it, with a perfectly placed final cut that will have you leaving The Wrestler winded.