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Apart from the differences in waiting time and admission charge, movie theaters are becoming almost indistinguishable from HMOs. Last week, we had Val Kilmer’s retinal failure and Annette Bening’s nervous breakdown; this week, Helena Bonham Carter’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); and, before the crocuses bloom, Elisabeth Shue’s autism. Actors adore the challenge of playing characters with physical or mental disabilities, knowing full well that such performances are likely to garner Oscars (Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, Cliff Robertson in Charly, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot). Moviegoers are drawn to these dysfunction dramas, taking comfort from the opportunity to observe individuals who endure lives even more wretched than their own.
The Theory of Flight’s press material informs us that writer Richard Hawkins “put his screenplay in a brown paper envelope and sent it unsolicited to the BBC. There it joined thousands of others in the lingering slush pileunlikely to budge.” Fate was kind to Hawkins, if not to us, when director Paul Greengrass fished it out and brought it to Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh, real-life lovers seeking a movie project.
Nowadays, it’s antediluvian to characterize a work of art as being in rotten taste, but I needed the psychological equivalent of a roll of breath mints to expunge The Theory of Flight’s putridity from my mind. In the era when movies weren’t appendages to advertising campaigns, disabled protagonists were depicted with dignity and sensitivity, perhaps excessively so. (Think of Gary Cooper as baseball player Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, stricken with the same degenerative disease Bonham Carter suffers in Greengrass’ film.) Hawkins’ screenplay exploits disability as an occasion for coarse comedy and mawkish romance. In more gifted hands this approach might workthere are no absolute rules in artbut this script, as enacted by these players, is repulsive.
Branagh plays Richard, an immature failed artist whose Icarus-like attempt to take flight from a public building leads to a courtroom, where he is sentenced to 120 hours of community service. He’s assigned to assist 25-year-old Jane (Bonham Carter), whose ALS (known in England as motor neuron disease) confines her to a wheelchair and severely affects her ability to speak. The film offsets the viewer’s knee-jerk sympathy by presenting Jane as a self-centered, potty-mouthed, thrill-seeking, sex-obsessed kleptomaniac. Caring about her demands more empathy than most moviegoers will be able to muster.
Disability is not, as some religions postulate, a mark of sainthood; nor is it a license to behave monstrously. We’re supposed to admire Jane for her refusal to allow her rebellious nature to be tamed by illnessthe old “triumph of the human spirit” routine. With her spiky hair, askew baseball cap, and Lucky Strike jacket, she cuts a singular figure zooming about in her motorized chair. Bonham Carter clearly relishes the role, lolling her head to one side and contorting her body to simulate the effects of ALS. (The actress’ pipe-cleaner neck, strained in past films under the weight of period millinery and hairstyles, is ideally suited to this task.) She mimics the degenerative disease’s vocal communication impedimentshow accurately I’m unequip-ped to determineby slurring her speech and adding “ah” to most words ending with consonants or long vowelsa device that equally embellishes the character’s feisty (“I think-ah you’re-ah a complete-ah dickhead-ah”) and vulnerable (“You know-ah I’m going-ah to die-ah soon-ah”) dimensions.
Branagh complements his off-screen significant other’s histrionics with an emetic display of cuteness. His Richard is a whiskery, pudding-faced Lost Boy who refuses to abandon his childish dreams. Emotionally, as he explicitly informs Jane, he’s more of a cripple than she is. Early in the film, he begins constructing a makeshift aircraft out of spare parts, with a payoff as blatantly telegraphed as the introduction of a loaded weapon into the first act of a “well-made” play. Later on, Jane clarifies the plane’s symbolic significance for slow-witted viewers: “Taking-ah flight-ah has more-ah than-ah one meaning-ah.”
I can no longer postpone discussing an element of Hawkins’ narrative that I’d prefer to avoid. Jane, a virgin, is determined to change this condition. Richard agrees to help her by robbing a bank in order to raise the 2,000-pound fee required by an upscale gigolo willing to assume the task. For the occasion, Richard and Jane book a luxurious hotel room, where they whoop it up with bottles of champagne. In visualizing this sequence, Greengrass employs wheezy fast-motion and jump-cut gimmicks last seen in ’60s Swinging London comedies. Subsequently, he intercuts Richard’s maladroit maneuvers as a would-be bank robber with Jane’s agonized howls during what we’re conned into thinking is her erotic initiation. (This is one of several vulgar gags. Early on, orgasmic sounds emanating from Jane’s computer are designed to trick us into thinking that she’s having sex. Later, when Richard negotiates with the male hustler, he executes this mission so awkwardly that the latter believes he’s trying to set up an assignation for himself.)
In a screenplay notable for its shamelessness (and, for a romantic comedy, its unprecedented repetitions of and variations on the word “fuck”), the sole lucid moment arrives when Jane’s compassionate, long-suffering mother accuses her of never considering anyone but herself, stoically adding, “This is definitely not how I wanted to live my life, either.” The nadir comes when Richard, in his quest to help Jane “get shagged,” takes her to a nightclub populated by disabled people. Greengrass shoots the club’s patrons as though they were twisted monsters cavorting in the innermost circle of hell. Jane, whose idea of a sexual initiator is Richard Gere, flees the place in horror, but not before the filmmaker has tipped his hand by inadvertently revealing that all disabled people, except his porcelain-skinned heroine, disgust him.
It’s enough-ah to make a moviegoer-ah upchuck-ah.CP