It’s so gratifying to see the perennially underused Helen McCrory handed a headlining role as that rarest of screenwriting creations — an intelligent, sexually active, middle-aged woman protagonist — that one is willing to make excuses for the vehicle housing her. Still, it’s disappointing that “Flying Blind” retreats into some decidedly blinkered notions of femme behavior. A sleekly styled feature debut for award-winning Polish shorts director Katarzyna Klimkiewicz, this ungainly but intriguing hybrid of erotic drama and post-9/11 thriller lacks equivalent polish in the script department. An attractive option for fest programmers, pic looks to be a commercial low-flyer.
Introduced reeling off incomprehensible reams of aviation theory to appropriately impressed colleagues, Bristol-based aeronautical engineer Frankie (McCrory) initially seems a cool counterpoint to mainstream cinema’s long line of emotionally deficient or quivering, lovelorn career women. Her work is exciting enough on its own terms not to stand in for other forms of fulfillment, and she’s frisky rather than ravenous when Kahil (Najib Oudghiri), a 24-year-old Algerian student at the college where she works as a guest lecturer, puts the moves on her.
As this flirtation blossoms into a steamy May-October romance, however, the writers’ construction of Frankie turns increasingly less progressive. The cliche of the high-flying woman who can control everything but her own libido comes tritely to the fore here, as the character begins making one uncharacteristically irrational decision after another.
Kahil, not generous with details about his background to begin with, is not quite who he says he is: Rather than an engineering student, he’s an illegal immigrant with a police record and a Web browser heavy with Islamic fundamentalist sites. (Frankie is oddly unbothered when Kahil’s roommate professes to a “mysterious” occupation.) As though concerned that it might have been too subtle with its insinuations of terrorism, the script helpfully gets Frankie’s dad to ask her, “Do you think it wise to have an Arab boyfriend given the nature of your work?”
To the film’s credit, where this plot development initially threatens the basest kind of cross-cultural fear mongering, the question of Kahil’s allegiances remains a pleasingly ambiguous one, even as higher authorities reach a decision in the matter. More bothersome is that a woman as supposedly brilliant and no-nonsense as Frankie must become flutteringly suggestible to every conflicting account she hears in order to further the narrative. Meanwhile, when a female policewoman expresses skepticism that Frankie saw nothing odd about Kahil romancing “a woman of your age, in a sensitive industry,” one rather wishes her incredulity were met with pithier resistance.
The ever-watchable McCrory negotiates these enervating lapses in characterization as pluckily as she can, her straight-backed resolve lending Frankie more strength and consistency than she might possess on paper. Her sexual chemistry with the contrastingly wispy Oudghiri, however, never quite takes off, although the sex scenes — including one that finds the couple slammed against the living-room window of Frankie’s gorgeous Georgian townhouse, like a House & Garden take on “Shame” — are staged with gusto.
Tech credits are all accomplished, with Andrzej Wojciechowski’s glistening widescreen lensing employing a metallic palette that aptly reflects Frankie’s profession.