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Review: 'The Theory of Flight' soars with emotion

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 24, 1998 11:33:10 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "The Theory of Flight" is inspired by the type of delicious madness which is quintessentially British. When it comes to outcasts, oddballs and eccentrics, nobody does it better than the English.

"Theory" casts Kenneth Branagh as Richard, an aimless oddball who dreams of taking flight in a jerry-rigged claptrap of an airplane he's built himself. His efforts to fly this hunk of junk land him in trouble with the law, and he's sentenced to public service.

His assignment: To take care of Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), a woman with Lou Gehrig's disease (a progressive motor neuron disease which is fatal).

Obviously, this is not your typical romantic comedy. But it is a wonderful journey of the heart. Jane is a passionate and determined 25-year-old woman who insists on experiencing love -- both emotionally and physically -- before she dies. Richard is a man with little determination of any kind.

But when Jane persuades him to travel to London and help her make her dreams come true, the results are touching, funny and nothing you would ever expect.

Funny, awe-inspiring

This film breaks taboos against both disability and, in a sense, comedy. Sexuality of any kind is rarely portrayed on film when it comes to the disabled. Now combine that with Jane's total lack of self-pity, plus her refusal to be upstaged by her disease, and the results are awe-inspiring, heartwarming, and funny. (No, there are no actual sex scenes.)

Theatrical preview for "The Theory of Flight"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Original concepts don't come along that often and this absurd, acerbic comedy is one of them -- and it almost landed in the trash. The film is written by Richard Hawkins, whose original screenplay was sent in a brown envelope, unsolicited, to the BBC. There it sat in a big dusty pile until director Paul Greengrass found it and sent it to Bonham Carter and Branagh.

They both saw the possibilities for great character parts and grabbed them. His character doesn't want to grow up and become an adult. Her character won't be allowed to become one. The result is that they're both a little childlike and they recognize they're two lost souls. Branagh and Bonham Carter are lovers in real life and the chemistry between the two boils over on-screen.

Bonham Carter should be Oscar-nominated for her fierce, honest and witty performance -- but be warned. Between Bonham Carter's natural, rather posh English accent and her character's disability (which causes slurred speech), it's hard to understand her at times, so you really have to pay attention. But the way she conveys her feelings, joy and pain using just her facial expressions, all while confined in a wheelchair, are marvelous.

Branagh is also his usual wonderful self, a fact you may appreciate more if you are not -- like me -- a little shell-shocked from the way he channeled Woody Allen in "Celebrity." That performance still makes me cringe.

"The Theory of Flight" is not a depressing film about a dying woman. (But if I were you I would take some Kleenex.) Rather, this is a wonderfully absurd story about liberation and love.

"The Theory of Flight" opened in New York City and Los Angeles on December 23 and will expand across the country on January 22. The film is rated "R" with a running time of 98 minutes.

Fine Line Features, a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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