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The Flying Scotsman, the man: Graeme Obree, a Scottish bike messenger and shopkeeper. He and his wife, a nurse, barely make ends meet. Obree suffers from bipolar disorder, which hit him particularly hard after the sudden death of his brother. The Flying Scotsman, the legend: An amateur cyclist who built a bike out of scraps and washing-machine parts. He used the bike and a revolutionary riding position to repeatedly break longstanding records. Despite his success, Obree could not escape his illness and attempted suicide several times.
The Flying Scotsman, the movie: A flat, superficial telling of the inherently interesting story described above.
Director Douglas Mackinnon’s debut film begins ominously, showing a hooded character carrying a bike through the woods and tossing a rope over a tree branch. Cut to a wee Graeme singing in a church choir, a handful of bullies sneering at him from outside. After services, the boy doesn’t get far before the kids surround him and give him a mild thrashing. Graeme’s old-school Scottish parents are upset but don’t want to run to the principal. “You’re just going to have to learn to stand up to them,” his dad tells him. To help with speedy getaways, Graeme gets a bicycle for Christmas.
Some 20 years later, in 1993 Glasgow, Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) still tools around town on his bike, delivering packages lightning-quick—albeit to the wrong locations. He meets Malky (The Lord of the Rings’ Billy Boyd), a fellow courier and cycling enthusiast, and tells him of his crazy plan to break the world hour record, which was set by an Italian pro rider some nine years back. And Obree is going to do it on a bike of his own design, figuring out the physics of a more aerodynamic vehicle and using whatever parts he has available. Helping him with scrap and encouragement is Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox), a widowed minister who stopped at Obree’s struggling bike shop on one of its final days. Malky becomes his manager and suffers humiliations such as “Hey, I know you…you’re the bike messenger!” when he represents himself as part of a firm and tries to get meetings with possible sponsors.
Besides living a stressful hand-to-mouth existence with his wife, Anne (Laura Fraser), and their barely glimpsed baby, there’s no explanation for why Obree sets such an apparently impossible goal for himself, under impossible conditions. He fails, he succeeds, he sidesteps the spotlight, he aims high again—the movie is little more than 96 minutes of career highlights. And the widely reported lows? See Obree alone on a stairwell at a celebration party. Or looking contemplative as he sits near a shore, telling Baxter, “Everyone gets down sometimes.”
One scene nearly conveys the hopelessness and desperation a manic-depressive may feel: Obree beats the world hour record on his second attempt but falls apart when his achievement is topped about a week later. Somewhat ridiculously, he’s apparently still dogged by his childhood bullies, who taunt him—“You think yer better than us?”—when he goes into their bar to use a phone. Later, Obree’s depressed and alone in his house, hiding when one of his tormentors knocks on his door. The dude delivers a long, biting speech of some sort—the actor’s accent is too thick to decipher much—and Obree crumbles, holding his mouth as he cries in a desperate attempt to keep the man from hearing him.
Miller, at least, does well with what he’s given. (Though, after a string of flops such as Dracula 2000, Mindhunters, and Melinda and Melinda, he can’t do worse.) The Englishman carries a respectable Scottish accent and remains likable despite his character’s obsession with biking (when he naughtily tells his wife to get on the floor, it’s only to prove a pedal theory of his) and general stubbornness (when his riding position is banned, he refuses to race differently, even though it means almost certain disqualification). Fraser lends hints of the strong woman Obree’s wife was supposed to be, going through hell financially and dealing with her husband’s demons, but she’s used as little more than a cheerleader here. And Boyd—well, he’s still Pippen, and even if you don’t buy him as a get-it-done manager type, he’s innocuous enough.
The racing scenes themselves are naturally exciting, although Mackinnon sometimes falters by just showing Obree zooming around a track, his legs blurred and his face pained, without any indication of time—he’s sure going fast, but is he fast enough, or is he failing? And while Obree’s breaking of the world hour record is shown, many of his later achievements are related only through newspaper headlines. We don’t get any more information about his depression, either, except a repeat of the forest scene and a closeup of happy, then darkened eyes as Obree’s final crowning closes the film. Regardless of the real man’s achievements, the filmic Scotsman sputters.