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by: Scott Renshaw

If it's December or January, it must be time for "triumph over illness/handicap" films. They spew forth during Oscar season like colored hankies from a magician's sleeve, playing to the Academy's time-honored tradition of tossing nominations at anyone who hops into a hospital bed, or occupies a wheelchair, or otherwise tackles physical or mental adversity. Into this crowded field comes THE THEORY OF FLIGHT, a quirky comedy-drama of romantic friendship starring Kenneth Branagh as Richard Hawkins, an artist so flighty that he actually does try to take flight...right off the roof of a building. For his trouble Richard is sentenced to community service, which takes the form of assisting Jane Hatchard (Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman stricken with ALS (better known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig's Disease) and confined to a wheelchair. She wants only one thing from Richard: for him to help her realize her life's dream before she dies. Cue soaring music and inspirational message.

Well, not exactly. It seems that Jane's life's dream is to lose her virginity. None-too-keen on doing the deed himself, Richard instead decides to rent her a gigolo for one night. And none-too-wealthy, being a flighty artist, he decides to rob a bank to pay for it. Thus unfolds a singularly odd sort of film, at once a dark comedy, an unconventional love story and, yes, a triumph over illness/handicap film.

The strange thing about THE THEORY OF FLIGHT is that it's not always clear whose triumph over a handicap will be the focus of the film. As the narrative progresses, it becomes ever more clear that Richard is the real protagonist of the piece, the character who is supposed to learn and change through this experience. Unfortunately, he's also the character who is least interesting, and makes the least sense. There's something emotionally amiss with this fellow, that's for certain; exactly what that something is, not so much. Kenneth Branagh (apparently still suffering side effects from channeling Woody Allen in CELEBRITY) is all neurotic discomfort and goofy twitches. The character's intense desire to follow through on the bank robbery falls somewhere between melodramatic affectation and sincere-though-misguided expression of resolve, when only one or the other would truly clarify things.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter continues to act circles around most of her contemporaries. Jane is a superb piece of characterization, never merely the self-pitying, hard-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside person with a handicap that has become such a cinematic cliche. There's wicked self-deprecating humor in the character -- she posts a message to an Internet personals board stating "Hideously crippled young woman seeks sex" -- but also an innocent wistfulness. Though it's a challenging bit of physical acting for Bonham Carter to wrap her mouth around Jane's slurred speech and adopt the distinctive movements, her finest moment is a silent one -- a pleading glance at Richard as her voice synthesizer plays her recorded request.

It's the clash between our interest in those two characters which prevents THE THEORY OF FLIGHT from soaring to the highest possible level. While Richard's awakening to his own self-indulgence may be the point, it's still tedious watching him indulge himself when watching Jane is so much more interesting. Perhaps the problem is that there is too much high-concept to this tale, too many silly little bits of business to distract from genuine interaction between the two principal characters. It's hard for a love story to be great when you want one of the lovers to end up happy, and the other just to end up an adult. You have to commend THE THEORY OF FLIGHT for taking a slightly different flight plan towards soaring inspiration. It just can't quite get there on only one good wing.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 bumpy flights: 6.


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