By Indiewire | Indiewire January 13, 1999 at 2:00AM
Greengrass Uplifts "Theory of Flight" with Branagh and
By Tom Cunha
Director Paul Greengrass' "The Theory of Flight" is an unusually
uplifting love story about two very different people brought together by
random circumstances. This off-beat, whimsical, and often humorous love
story marks the second pairing of Oscar-nominees Kenneth Branagh and
Helena Bonham Carter, after the crash-and-burn of 1994's elaborately
produced "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." This time around, however,
they're light years away from their previous on-screen collaboration in
this intimate, touching and life-affirming tale.
"Flight" centers around a sharp, feisty 25-year-old woman (Carter) whose
unyielding battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease increases her desire to
experience an adult sexual relationship while she still has time.
Branagh is the befuddled caretaker who is assigned to look after her by
the courts. Through this set-up, a touching friendship and love evolves.
"It certainly seemed on reading it that it was an unusual film," says
Branagh. "Obviously movies have produced a zillion love stories, but
this was very different in tone. And that whole issue of tone was
always going to be a delicate one throughout. Although dealing with a
physical condition which is very serious and tragic, nevertheless, in
movies such things can be dealt with in sentimental and manipulative
ways. This felt as though it had an authenticity and a quirkiness to it
and some sort of purity. It had great compassion and heart is what I
Of particular astonishment is that the script, by Richard Hawkins,
managed to find it's way into the hands of director Greengrass. "The
writer, Richard Hawkins, had sent this into the BBC," says Branagh. "It
was the first script in 20 years that had come out of what they call
their slosh pile. It was an unsolicited manuscript. Films never get
made that way. So there was something very individual about the life of
this screenplay. It was something that Helena responded very well to
and so did I."
One of the more refreshing attributes of the story is that is steers
clear of nearly every heavy-handed cliche one would typically expect
from a film whose central character is ailing and wheelchair-bound. "I
didn't want to make a film that was gonna be like a full-on
naturalistic, social, realistic disability movie," says Greengrass.
"What I wanted was a film that was going to be funny and profane,
whimsical and eccentric, utterly preposterous, sentimental, poignant,
and then you come to the tragedy of it all. And it seemed to me that all
those things were going to be more difficult than getting to the tragic
thing, because that's given to you. That's built into it. So,"
Greengrass further explains, "I was always looking for casting that was
going to give me a playfulness, a lightness between the two characters.
That was what I was looking for all the time. In my mind, the danger
was that I was going to get two people who were going to tend to want to
go to the tragic places straight off. So when [Kenneth and Helena] read
together, that's what came through. It was this playfulness, this
lightness that I think comes from being superb actors."
Like Greengrass, Carter, who adds another solid performance to her
extensive list of primarily corset roles including an Oscar-nominated
turn in last year's "The Wings of the Dove," was attracted to the way in
which the subject matter was approached. "I was trying to stay away
from making it just about the illness. As far as the pain and the angst,
what I loved about this script was that it wasn't too obvious. It wasn't
just about too sentimental, or too indulgent, or too manipulative or the
obvious, what you'd expect from a film that had somebody in it with Lou
Gehrig's Disease. And I love the humor in it. And I love the fact that
she was not self-pitying."
"The big thing was not to make it so about the disease that the
character wouldn't come through," says Carter. "I didn't want to get so
obsessed about doing a portrait of an illness because that would be
betraying her. She's someone who's screaming to be looked at as an
adult, instead of somebody who's ill."
While the chemistry of real-life couple Carter and Branagh translates
well on screen, Greengrass didn't initially envision casting them as a
pair; he sought Carter first. "I wanted Helena first because I wanted to
cast Jane first. If you're looking at it as a screenplay you've got to
cast [the protagonist] Jane first before you cast him. I wanted her
because she's one of the handful of most interesting English actresses.
What she's doing at the moment is she's being bold in her choices. The
interesting thing about Helena is she's getting all kinds of acclaim
now. But actually the work now for quite some years has been really
interesting. Also, I'd seen her in a film called 'Dancing Queen' that
she did a long time ago, where she was really very funny and she doesn't
get very many opportunities to do that. Jane had to be an actress who
could find comedy in the most unlikely places."
"In the end for me, directing is about performance," confesses
Greengrass. "What moves people, what gives insight, are actors who make
me laugh or make me cry. That's the essence of movies for me. Of
course, what's lovely about this film and attracted me very much is that
its a visual film. You've got the plane and you've got all those things.
It's not just talking heads. performances are at the heart."