THE FLYING SCOTSMAN
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Cast: Johnny Lee Miller, Billy Boyd, Brian Cox, Laura Fraser, Morven Christie, Steven Berkoff
MPAA Rating: (for some mature thematic elements and strong language)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 5/4/07 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik
I did not know the story of Graeme Obree, an amateur cyclist who twice broke the world hour record and fought a lifelong battle with depression in the process, until The Flying Scotsman. I'm glad I do now; his is a fascinating and, yes, inspiring story. How a movie based on a figure so fascinating and inspiring fails to achieve either of those qualities is perplexing, but such is the case here. As a sports movie and as a portrayal of depression, the movie is a shorthanded account. Screenwriters John Brown, Declan Hughes, and Simon Rose (working off of Obree's autobiography) and director Douglas Mackinnon seem to assume that a hastened telling of Obree's story is enough to get at the heart of the matter, forgoing the challenges he faces in favor of quickly getting to his overcoming those obstacles. The movie has brief, honest, and somewhat disquieting moments in its portrayal of Obree's depression, and the racing scenes at least convey how arduous the sport can be. However, the story is rushed, and those flashes are mere hints at depth within the material. Ultimately, they only contribute to a vague overall emotional sense of Obree's accomplishments.
We first see Obree (Johnny Lee Miller) walking in the forest with a length of rope, as distant voices from the past taunt him ("I saw you fall."). Next, a young Graeme (Sean Brown) is beaten up by bullies. He receives a bike for Christmas and uses it to escape his tormentors. Now, in 1993 in Glasgow, Obree is a parcel deliveryman, and a co-worker Malky (Billy Boyd) recognizes him from his cycling career. Obree still races; he wins a race and continues to ride all the to his bicycle shop/apartment where his wife Anne (Laura Fraser) and baby have just arrived by car after cheering him on. Later, Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox), a local reverend, arrives, needing a part for his old bike, and later, the reverend witnesses Obree outrace a van. Obree has wanted to get into the professional cycling scene, and he has an idea for a more efficient bike. Stealing spare parts, he begins to build a lighter, more aerodynamic bike. Baxter provides the space; Malky begins to look for sponsorship. He only has eight weeks to prepare before cycling star Chris Boardman (Adrian Smith) attempts the world hour record, which everyone is convinced he will beat.
Obree has no problem using whatever parts he believes are necessary; he takes bearings out of the family washing machine because they're built stronger than others. His bike, "Old Faithful," is not a pretty thing, and it's just one of the issues the International Cycling Union, especially its head Ernst Hagemann (Steven Berkoff), has with Obree. He's an amateur with only one sponsor, and if he can build a successful bike out of padlocks and washing machine parts, it will affect the sales of the professional bikes they encourage people to buy. Hagemann becomes the simplistic, unnecessary villain here, looking fiendishly on as the ICU changes rules right before races to try and keep Obree out of the running. Obree responds in kind, at one point having Malky buy a bike seat from a kid, as it will work best and fits in with the ICU's standards. The cycling scenes are handled well by Mackinnon. The camera sits on the handlebars, Obree's face becoming paler and sweatier as the endurance test goes on. There are some first-person shots and a nice handheld tracking shot that follows Obree's first lap on his second attempt at the hour record.
The variety makes what is essentially a person riding around in a circle interesting to watch, but throughout the early preparation and racing sequences, the script hints at something else going on with Obree. He sits and stares at the water, and when Baxter asks him what's wrong, Obree responds that he's just "feeling down." After his first attempt at the record nearly misses, he looks as though he's about to break down ("Failure again."), and his wife has to snap him out of it. When he succeeds the next day (actually attempting it so soon is itself an accomplishment), he sits sobbing in the stairwell while everyone else has a party for him. At one point in his career, he falls during a race, and it sends him into a dark depression he cannot recover from as easily. He lies in bed, watches the fall over and over again, and, in movie's most haunting scene of his state of mind, cowers behind a wall as one of the bullies from his past taunts him through the mail slot. "It's like being in a swamp and dragged down, squeezing the life out of you," he tells Baxter, who has experience with depression in his own life.
This is an inspirational story, though, so of course, he comes back—more scenes of his wife and Malky cheering ensue. The Flying Scotsman ends with a final flash to Obree's eyes, hinting that, in spite of his accomplishments, he must still deal with his depression (that there's no mention of it in the coda is odd). That moment and the others like it are spot on, but they are not a prevalent enough force in this story, which needs them to show how truly inspirational Obree's achievements are.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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