A risky idea only occasionally gets both wheels off the ground in “The Theory of Flight,” a sometimes wryly amusing, oftimes dramatically awkward story about a wheelchair victim determined to lose her virginity before she expires. Pic’s hairline flirtation with good taste is mostly kept on course by a terrif lead performance from Helena Bonham Carter, despite the miscasting of Kenneth Branagh as her vis-a-vis and a script that changes gears too many times to really soar. Theatrical prospects look shakier than small screen ones.
Richard (Branagh) is an artist-cum-dreamer who, like the early pioneers of aviation, aspires to human flight but ends up falling off buildings. One stunt in central London lands him with 120 hours of community service, during which he is assigned to Jane (Bonham Carter), a young woman dying of motor neurone disease.
Jane’s salty language and fiercely independent attitude have put off a string of social workers. Jane, who enjoys a spot of shoplifting as well as watching porno videos, makes it clear that she doesn’t want any namby-pamby treatment, and Richard is happy to oblige.
However, it’s only when he shows her his latest obsession, a rickety WWI-like biplane he’s been building at a remote country hideaway, that she reveals her private obsession — to be deflowered before it’s too late.
Richard, who has troubles committing to his caring girlfriend, Julie (Holly Aird), politely declines her invitation, but offers to take her to London “to get shagged.” Hereon, the yarn turns into an offbeat comedy in which Richard stakes everything on finding the cash to pay a handsome gigolo (Ray Stevenson) to do the deed.
Pic pushes its crazy premise to the limits of good taste, and often beyond, but is anchored by Bonham Carter’s touching and funny perf, which capitalizes on her unique blend of kookiness and toughness, and refuses to senti-mentalize the role. However, Branagh, though a good actor with the right text, rarely seems to hit his stride in a part that’s woollily written, with insufficient background.
Richard Hawkins’ screenplay doodles with metaphors of taking flight (literally and emotionally) but rarely connects the two characters in ways that make their relationship spark on screen. The two thesps — partners in real life — evince considerable charm together but are held apart by a script that veers between goofy comedy, serious drama (Jane and her mother, Richard and his girlfriend), a feel-good relationship movie (musical montages of the two leads at play) and flights of fancy.
Helmer Paul Greengrass, from a background in TV docus, gives the film a generally cinematic look, backed by Rolfe Kent’s surprisingly large-scale symphonic score. Pic does, however, urgently require Bonham Carter to revoice her part: though the actress uncannily mimics the contorted speech of a motor neurone victim, her dialogue is often close to incomprehensible, needlessly handicapping an otherwise fine performance in the interests of authenticity.