File THE THEORY OF FLIGHT under the “been there, done that” group of films which first started to pop up about 10 years ago and have since given us everything from RAIN MAN to SHINE. These movies have invariably featured uplifting (and often true) tales of courage and determination wherein handicapped characters have overcome nearly impossible circumstances – blah, blah, blah and so on. While many of these films were very well done and invariably offered admirable performances by their leads, the topic has become something of a dead horse. And therein lies the fundamental problem with THE THEORY OF FLIGHT.Kenneth Branagh plays Richard, an offbeat artist who has a bit of a nervous breakdown as a result of his frustration with his art and his life in general. The film opens with him jumping off a building in an attempt to fly – man-made flight having become something of an obsession with him. As punishment for his recklessness, Richard is sentenced to 120 hours of community service.
As it happens, his service is not the usual removing of trash from the roadside but instead he is assigned to work with Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), a crippled young woman in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig's Disease. Though physically disabled, the strong-willed Jane is in full command of her mental capabilities and she takes an instant dislike to Richard. She sees him as yet another in a long line of “sad fucks” who have been assigned to her.
But as the two get to know each other they become close friends and Jane soon enlists Richard’s help in her quest to lose her virginity. Jane is committed to experiencing sex before she dies, and she will do whatever she has to in order to make it happen. Richard is at first reluctant, but he soon gives in to Jane’s request and the two head to London where they will each struggle to overcome their fears in order to make the most of their lives.
The film benefits greatly from the presence of the always fine Bonham Carter and the somewhat erratic Branagh. These two are a good team, and they do much to add life and zest to this surprisingly cutesy movie. However, Bonham Carter’s Jane inevitably comes across as a female variation of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in MY LEFT FOOT. This is not the actress’ fault, but simply a result of the physical similarities between Jane and the disabled character in that earlier film.
The real problem with THE THEORY OF FLIGHT though is in its tone. Much of the movie is surprisingly light considering the grave subject matter. It takes a little getting used to seeing Jane and Richard dance around their hotel room to the beat of pop music while the frightening prospect of a gigolo and a bank robbery is only hours away. Of course, the film’s lighthearted touch is probably an attempt by the filmmakers to avoid similarities to the films that have come before it. The end result is a cock-eyed effort, and when the movie does get serious it seems almost out of place because you’ve spent the previous hour and a half adjusting to the frivolity of it all.Ultimately, THE THEORY OF FLIGHT is a game try at offering a new perspective on a familiar story. And while the film falls short in some ways, moviegoers unfamiliar with the MY LEFT FOOTs and SHINEs of the world may appreciate this movie more than seasoned viewers of the sub-genre are likely to.