Beeban Kidron’s “Great Moments in Aviation” is a willfully theatrical, sporadically magical romantic comedy embracing three barely compatible narrative strands, not one of which ever gets full flight clearance. Damaged beyond repair by a mannered scripting style and evident recutting, this wingless relic looks commercially to stay confined to its hangar.
After the esoteric charms of her first U.S. pic, “Used People,” Kidron’s latest is something of a return to the scaled-down dimensions of her idiosyncratic British TV work. While her talent for gently easing inventive comedy out of awkward situations frequently illuminates “Aviation,” it offers a beacon in decidedly murky surroundings.
Opening in the West Indies in the ’50s, story leaps headlong on to an earthly enchanted plane. A farewell banquet marks the departure of Gabriel Angel (Rakie Ayola), a young woman setting sail for England, where she dreams of becoming an aviator.
Once on board the cruise ship (a stylish theatrical set, crossing an equally make-believe ocean), the tone shifts jarringly to terrain somewhere between archaic drawing-room comedy and mystery-driven melodrama. Pic gets no help from Brit novelist Jeanette Winterson’s preposterous dialogue and comic mistiming that serves up more misses than hits.
A booking mix-up forces Gabriel to share her cabin with Scottish gent Duncan Stewart (Jonathan Pryce), and an unlikely affection slowly begins to blossom.
Thwarting their romantic progress is Rex Goodyear (John Hurt), a snaky art historian who insists Stewart is not the man he claims, but an impostor who stole one of his paintings and murdered his wife. Also on board are a pair of homeward-bound missionary women (Vanessa Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin), rumored to be lovers.
A good hour is taken up with onerous scene-setting before the wheels really start turning, leaving only the shortest stretch to sort events into some semblance of order. Consequently, some potential jewels are squandered. Chief among them is Redgrave and Tutin’s mutual revelation that their love for each other goes way beyond companionship. Though it’s captivatingly played, with a physical clinch that’s by no means shy, the scene is lobbed in and robbed of its impact.
Other outcomes fall afoul of the editing reshuffle, and almost everything that happens does so with inadequate justification. Winterson’s script is so crammed with ill-fitting incident that it never loiters long enough to find a focus.
Questions about the line between truth and falsehood, genuine and fake, are too flimsily voiced to mean much. Likewise, the intro of race issues in the closing voiceover only makes the haphazard mix even more lumpy.
Brightest stretches are those repping the most marked departure from Kidron’s previous work. Sharply directed opening seg and frequent flashbacks to Gabriel’s home soar above the stilted doings on the liner. Considerable help comes from Remi Adefarasin’s warmly lit camera work, awash with color, and from Rachel Portman’s stirring choral music.
Perfs by the seasoned Brit cast make a deliberate play for overwrought caricature with patchy results. In the film’s most naturalistic turn, Ayola is a constant pleasure to watch. Unforced and appealing, she often succeeds in pulling the fanciful fireworks momentarily back down to Earth.