The Theory of Flight
Hilary and Jackie
HEAR! the erectile thumbs popping skyward--Boing! SMELL! the publicity goons getting sweaty as they quick-dial editors across the country about this inspiring yet uplifting new movie and its attendant Oscar buzz around Helena Bonham Carter and her co-star/beau Kenneth Branagh. SEE! the blurbs oozing molasseslike from the wires: "Bonham Carter soars!" "If you liked My Left Foot, you'll love The Theory of Flight!" "Don't run, don't walk--FLY! to The Theory of Flight!"
During the Oscar ceremony a couple of years back, Billy Crystal noted that the Academy seems to love those differently abled--a cracked piano genius, an idiot savant, a retarded killer, anyone in a wheelchair. One can imagine this British film's screenwriter (Richard Hawkins) back in 1996, watching the Oscars and scraping his couch for change. Maybe he left his flat during the adverts to buy some fags. Maybe, on the way to the shop, he was thinking demographics.
"Wheelchair--right, that's a go. But we've got to have a female this time. Naturally, we'll need a strong male lead, and if I'm going to sell this, we've got to have a gun. Maybe a Tarantino thing--the guy in a suit and sunglasses and some American rock 'n' roll. And as long as we're going American, let's throw in lots of open road and convertible cars. Hmmm. Maybe one of those cute, Hard Day's Night-ish music-video sequences. Wouldn't want people to think this is a depressing story. Of course, the girl will be a terminal case..." (Even the release pattern was predictably skewed toward the Oscars, as the film came out in limited release on the coasts at the end of last year--that's known as "platforming" in the biz--before opening nationwide this week with its preordained pull-quotes in place.)
But seriously, folks: Branagh plays a failed painter who, headed for a breakdown, becomes caregiver to a young woman (Bonham Carter) with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Of course, she is also a brassy pottymouth, and her final goal is to get laid. (Apparently, the charmingly snotty disabled person is becoming as popular a liberal stereotype in film as the tough black female judge: At least two other movies about differently abled and sex-obsessed gals are due to "platform" in the near future.) Anyway, the "flight" thing of the title involves the Branagh character's determination to build an airplane. Don't even ask about the gun.
The cynical film geek may detect a similar market-friendly intent behind Hilary and Jackie, a gorgeous bio-pic of the du Pré wonder-sisters of classical music. If so, the film justifies it. Based on Hilary du Pré's book, this movie tells its story twice--first through Hilary's eyes and then Jackie's. The gimmick is obtrusive only at first, as we see specific shots retaken from each character's p.o.v. Eventually, this technique allows us to witness the erosion of these soul mates' relationship in almost all its complexity.
The girls are raised both to support and to compete with each other: Flutist Hilary is fingered early on as the real genius in the family, which inspires Jackie to surpass her on the cello. In adulthood, Jackie (Emily Watson) becomes a frazzled megalomaniac, pursuing a life of international tours, birth control, and an exotic husband, while Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) chooses a rural life and motherhood--the classic women's-picture dichotomy, though rendered here with genuine emotion and fresh insight. As some classical-music listeners may remember, the real-life Jackie contracted MS at the peak of her career. Now, if this were a common movie, Jackie's illness would be exploited to signal her redemption, to win our sympathy, to tie things tidily to a close, and to connect us to some overarching cosmic structure. But, thankfully, it isn't.
One friend thinks the film is a bald attempt to copy the Shine formula for a female audience. But even that admittedly lovely bio-pic bears the scent of coercive uplift and vague sermonizing. In that sense, it uses its character of David Helfgott much as the actual Helfgott was used onstage at the Oscars. Of course, unlike his screen incarnation, the real man completely flubbed his part. And it's that sort of moment, when someone steps out of the bounds of our expectations, that is at the core of Hilary and Jackie. Unlike the cute neuroses and pert deliverance of The Theory of Flight, or the easy-to-swallow triumph of Shine, Hilary and Jackie allows its characters the luxury of remaining works in progress.
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