Sometimes the labyrinthine paths of movie deal making offer more intrigue than the movie itself. How did a fact-based 1980s story of a battle for American mental patients’ rights become directed by a Swedish veteran, shot primarily in Germany, produced by that nation and Belgium as a vehicle for two star English-language actresses? Let alone written by a man whose last screen credit was 1977’s “Chatterbox,” a drive-in farce about a woman with a talking vajay-jay?
The answer might well be a story less worthy but more surprising than that told by “55 Steps.” What emerges a competent but uninspired case-pleading meller fails to elicit memorable work from any of its principal collaborators. The kind of award-bait social issue drama that — when as routinely handled as here — won’t likely attract actual awards, Bille August’s film might do better for leads Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank if it bypasses tepid big-screen prospects in favor of a small-screen debut.
We first encounter Bonham Carter’s Eleanor Riese in full histrionic distress, being dragged by psychiatric ward attendants at a 1985 hospital into an isolation room. There, she is sedated against her will, then left unattended to soil herself and suffer seizures. The next morning she promptly calls an advocacy organization to demand legal representation, intent on suing the San Francisco hospital for mistreatment.
Diagnosed with “chronic paranoid schizophrenia and slight mental retardation,” Eleanor knows she needs medication as well as treatment. But she’s also well aware that the doses she’s administered have actually exacerbated, or even created, some of her worst symptoms. Unfortunately, the law is such that mental patients do not have the right to informed consent; the doctor’s judgment is always right, overruling their own.
This makes her a perfect test case to overturn those laws, attracting the eager attention of Colette Hughes (Swank), a psychiatric nurse turned patients’ rights lawyer, and her constitutional lawyer mentor Morton Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor). The latter at first advises the former not to take on what is sure to be a drawn-out and taxing pursuit — the workaholic Hughes is already stretched thin. Still, she won’t be deterred, even on realizing the impulsive, insistent, filter-free Eleanor will demand even more of her time and attention than imagined.
If Colette is frequently taken aback by Eleanor’s behavior, we certainly aren’t, as Mark Bruce Rosin’s on-the-nose screenplay (his first produced in 40 years) lays out a predictable dynamic of dedicated professional slowly warming toward her incorrigible “wise fool” client, whose eccentricities never get in the way of a pithy observation when needed. Bonham Carter chews scenery in a mostly comic performance that is lively but very broad, making the film’s rote inspirational beats even harder to take seriously. Meanwhile Swank operates in a monotonous range of humorless, self-sacrificing do-gooderism. Operating well below their formidable bests, these actresses don’t achieve the chemistry needed; nor is there any between Swank and Johan Heldenbergh as the loyal boyfriend Colette neglects.
August, whose English-language films have seldom compared well to his distinguished Scandinavian ones, can’t elevate this material much above the flat, pat TV-movie earnestness it seems content to aim for. The film (which was largely shot in Germany) has a washed-out, gauzy look that is as professionally mediocre as every other tech/design element here. “55 Steps” (named after Eleanor’s phobic compulsion to count stairs) tells an important story but manages to turn fact into wan dramatic formula.