Any movie about a cerebral palsy victim who learns to pilot a plane, hang-glide and win the heart of a woman — all in 90 minutes’ playing time — would seem to be asking for ridicule. And though the outlines of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” recycle most of TV’s lamentable if-he-can-do-it-so-can-you formula, director-co-writer Matt Dickinson makes sure his widescreen pic is made of sterner stuff, with easy sentiments mostly drained away. This adventure tale is prime for theatrical distribs able to nurture unique films; vid and small-screen route would rob the work of much of its visual impact.
Much of the attention focusses on the fact that Steve Varden, who plays the lead character of Sandy and co-wrote story and script, is himself disabled with cerebral palsy. This may tend to make “Cloud Cuckoo Land” more precious than it actually is. But Varden rejects pity: He has helped construct a drama that can be at times rough and cold, and the way he integrates his physical condition into a portrayal of a character who’s likeable yet bull-headed sets his work in a separate category from Daniel Day Lewis’ more charismatic Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.”
A stunning opening sequence, which recalls some of the gnawing airborne catastrophe of the first minutes of “Enduring Love,” depicts the crash of a small plane into a pregnant female hang-glider. Rushed to the hospital, she delivers a palsied baby before dying, leaving it up to granddad Victor (Derek Jacobi) to raise him.
Sandy has grown up with Victor’s love of old aircraft. Victor, who works for an outfit that recovers and restores flying machines, takes Sandy on field trips to search and excavate WWII craft. When a Toronto media tycoon offers E50,000 to find a wartime plane in the Lake District in England, Sandy becomes obsessed with the quest.
Victor reveals he is soon to die of cancer, but the melodramatic flourish is quickly subsumed by Sandy’s singleminded solo hunt for the plane — ignoring all doubters as he , sometimes thrashes about with the fury of an enraged Thomas Hardy wailing at the ungodly British elements. Film and filmmaking often become one in these moments, suggesting, beyond Sandy’s — and Varden’s — efforts, the production’s extreme physical demands.
Sandy’s oh-so-darling encounter with Lucy (Boo Pearce), a cafe worker in a touristy Lake District hangout, smacks of obviousness, but their developing relationship is sensitively and patiently drawn, with the wary Lucy finding her emotional cool melting under Sandy’s determined and attentive touch. Their coupling in the nighttime wilds is one of the more erotic in recent cinema.
The film is fundamentally interested in the social margins, so it makes odd sense that Sandy ends up living in a ratty trailer in a hippy community governed by self-described witch Jasmine (Jane Wall), and blossoms under this good witch’s and Lucy’s care.
Like Varden’s performance, the action is unvarnished and direct, with Varden doing his own stunt work. More than merely pictorial, lenser Andy Martin’s fine work ensures his camera is there next to Varden as he goes airborne. If anything, the only contrivance comes from the pro actors — except for the vibrant Pearce and the harsh Cowley.
Extremely handsome production is a love letter to the U.K. countryside, with the soundtrack full of an eclectic Ed Poole score and an excess of Andy White songs.