What role does mental illness — particularly bipolar disorder — play in creativity and art? Does experiencing the dramatic highs and lows of the illness fuel creation, and does treatment of symptoms dampen that artistic energy? Freshman filmmaker Paul Dalio’s “Touched with Fire” explores the romance between two poets with the affliction. Forces both internal and external drive the couple together and apart as they struggle to write, love, and survive.
Carla (Katie Holmes) begins the film at a low point, unenthusiastically reading her book of poetry to a small, uninvolved group at an event. She is quickly consumed by the desire to figure out what triggered her initial manic episode shortly after college, which leads her to accidentally check herself into a facility under the care of her psychiatrist. After intending just to spend a single night there while doing research in her paperwork, she is not allowed to leave the next morning. By contrast, Marco (Luke Kirby) struggles more with integration with society, holing himself away in a cluttered apartment, siphoning electricity from the hallway, and being hauled away by the police after a particularly bad episode. When Carla and Marco connect in a daily support group meeting, they bond over their shared experience with both mania and words: her as a more traditional poet, and he as a rapper with an Eminem-like delivery who calls himself “Luna.”
The similarly afflicted artist Vincent Van Gogh and his “Starry Night” play a role in their courtship, with the piece swirling over the walls in their imagination during a manic moment at the institution to literally being painted on the walls in the apartment they later share. Both are visually striking scenes, giving the audience a hint at how the bipolar experience might help drive creativity. Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) and Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) share a concern about how their mutual disorder brings out the worst in each other. The couple spends time in and out of the treatment center, on and off their medication, as they fall deeper in love.
Carla and Marco’s illness manifests itself in different ways, allowing the actors to take varied approaches to their characters. Holmes gets the less flashy of the two lead parts, but she surprisingly excels at showing Carla’s quieter depressions and panics, and she shows more range than in a number of previous roles. In his work in “Rectify” and “Take This Waltz,” Kirby has displayed a quiet charm, which is absent here to great effect. His Marco/Luna careens from one emotional extreme to the other, and he displays far more of the disorder’s delusions of grandeur than Holmes’ Carla. What may be missing from their performances is chemistry; other than a few brief moments, their relationship doesn’t display the sparks we might expect.
Unlike its protagonists, “Touched with Fire” never reaches either impressive highs or awful lows. It’s a film that is capably made in most respects, particularly in its acting and visuals, but it’s not truly successful. I’m someone who can cry at an antidepressant commercial, but I didn’t feel emotionally involved in the struggles of Carla and Marco. There’s little energy for a film that should be filled with feeling at both ends of the spectrum. The script from Dalio also skims over certain issues and dwells too long on others. As an example, Carla’s mother briefly threatens to tell her father of her issues at the beginning of the film, and Carla panics. There’s no explanation for Carla’s reaction at the moment or later in the film, when Carla’s father appears and all is fine.
There’s a cameo from “Touched with Fire” writer Kay Redfield Jamison, whose own work served as inspiration for the filmmaker in addition to his own experience. But inserting the author into the story feels like the psychology major’s version of fan service, taking the viewer outside the narrative rather than drawing them further into it.
“Touched with Fire” gets points for its good intentions, as well as for not treating Carla and Marco’s issues simply as quirks, as films like “Silver Linings Playbook” have in the past. The danger to themselves and to others is presented with honesty, but it does romanticize the creative efforts of real life artists who have had bipolar disorder. [C]