Published January 1, 1999
In The Theory of Flight, Helena Bonham Carter may have contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known to Americans as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but her real-life beau, Kenneth Branagh, seems to have contracted an even worse case of Robin Williams’s disease. Both KB and RW are young men who labor under the burden of more blessings of talent and brains than they know what to do with and both appear to have concluded that they are going to repay nature’s bounty by refusing to give themselves airs — indeed by spending their lives demonstrating what nice guys they are. This they prefer to do by making movies full of cheap uplift, in which they portray sensitive, ’90s men driven to charming but affecting eccentricity by some secret (or not-so-secret) sorrow. They end up bringing blessings to all around them not by anything they are actually do so much as simply by being such nice guys — and therefore a Healing Presence to those around them. And, indeed, themselves.
The latest exercise in this kind, directed by Paul Greengrass from a screenplay by Richard Hawkins — for whom the story appears to be in some degree or another autobiographical — stars Branagh as Richard Hopkins, a failed artist who suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea of flight, or the theory of flight, and building primitive aeroplanes. Because he causes a public nuisance with his first attempts to fly, in London, he is given 120 hours of community service, in the course of which he is somewhat improbably asked to look after a young woman called Jane Hatchard (Miss Bonham Carter) who is in a fairly advanced stage of her appalling disease and soon, alas, to die.
It’s Odd Couple time again. Richard is always off on a cloud somewhere, and Jane is always in a foul temper, mainly because she missed her chance to be seduced by a teen boyfriend on her 17th birthday and is, now that she is in her twenties, thoroughly cheesed off that she is still a virgin. You can pretty much guess the rest, though the picture is irritatingly coy both about getting us from heart-tugging A to inevitable B and about the reasons for the delay. Branagh seems content, like so many other actors and directors and producers and writers these days, only to strike attitudes and not to bother himself about the hard work of explaining why things are happening. We are never given the slightest idea why he gave up painting, or left his pretty girlfriend Julia (Holly Aird) who still cares about him, or why he should be insisting he is incapable of the sexual demands that Jane is making when he obviously isn’t.
Above all, we have no clue why he should be mooning around pretending he’s a Wright brother in the mid-1990s. Perhaps it was for no more reason than that it makes him romantic and interesting to the chicks — which he claims is the reason he took up painting as a teenager. “Sometimes reasons are hard to come by,” he says, which is true enough though rather a cop-out in the circumstances. Sometimes, too, they’re not, and we really do need at least one or two to be getting on with. Otherwise, we are likely to think his claim to Jane that he cannot love her not because she is “a cripple” but because he is is just another bit of the posing and attitudinizing that this fine actor has regrettably decided to devote his life to.