THE THEORY OF FLIGHT
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
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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