Family history and popular history — with the opposing yarns each can spin — collide and collude to intriguing effect in “The Lost Aviator,” a bright, entertaining account of a scandal from the glossy annals of early 20th-century aviation. In relating (and subtly reframing) the story of his great-uncle Bill Lancaster, a dashing British pilot whose Roaring Twenties celebrity ended in a sensational murder trial before a tragic final flight in 1933, Australian helmer Andrew Lancaster has a personal stake in the material that is to be expected. More surprising is the filmmaker’s unsentimental needling of his relatives for harder interpretations of a legend laid to rest. Still retaining a romantic sweep that is all but inseparable from its milieu, this handsomely presented “Aviator” — which has already racked up miles on the festival circuit — should take off in ancillary.
Bill Lancaster’s story is too enticing not to have been told already on screen: “The Lancaster Miller Affair,” a 1985 miniseries produced for Australian television, told a glamorized version of the romance between Lancaster and antipodean aviatrix Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, and their ultimately fatal love triangle with American writer Haden Clarke. (Meanwhile, “The Last Flight,” a 2009 French-language vehicle for Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet, riffed loosely on events pertaining to Lancaster’s death.)
“The Lost Aviator” weaves extensive footage from the miniseries into its own arrangement of the facts, which might seem an idle shortcut if not for the fact that the younger Lancaster (director of 2009’s Geena Davis-starring comedy “Accidents Happen”) is as specifically concerned with the ways in which his forebear’s story has been fashioned over the years as he is with the story itself. Even as it speeds the narrative along, this creaky dramatization is repurposed by the director as a primary example of the lore that certain family members — many of them weary of this lurid legacy — are willing to accept with prejudice.
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Wherever the truth lies, it’s quite a story. A former RAF airman who set out in 1927 to fly from England to Australia, he wound up falling for Miller, his co-pilot — abandoning his wife and family to settle with her in the U.S., where a Hollywood biopic was promised them. The movie was never made, though it would have been premature anyway: The real drama unfolded in 1932, when Clarke — then embroiled in a clandestine affair with Miller — was shot dead in the famous couple’s Miami home. Though he admitted to forging the dead man’s suicide note, Lancaster was acquitted of his murder, only to perish one year later, when his plane crashed during an attempted night crossing of the Sahara. (The crash site remained undiscovered for 29 years.)
As he wittily unpicks the layers of tabloid spin and historical speculation that have encircled the tale for 80-odd years, Lancaster holds firm to his personal conviction that his great-uncle was, in fact, guilty — though he admits that, in his heart, he wishes to be proven wrong. It’s a stand that amuses and even vexes his family elders, who have largely made peace with their uncertainty: Lancaster’s own parents accuse him of “dragging up old coals.”
Though he has neither the facts nor the resources to mount a formal cinematic retrial, the director instead probes his relatives’ memories with delicacy and good humor, inviting a sort of subjective emotional reconsideration of their joint family burden — a technique somewhat reminiscent of that employed in Sarah Polley’s more intimately focused “Stories We Tell,” albeit fleshed out with views from unrelated historians. Though unavoidably inconclusive, this study of latter-day familial myth-making (and myth-busting) is a moving, unexpected digression from the ripe melodrama of the Lancaster-Miller saga. The lovers’ own perspectives, meanwhile, are present via diary extracts and testimonies, elegantly voiced by Ewen Leslie and Yael Stone.
As befits its dapper subject, “The Lost Aviator” boasts ample below-the-line polish, with editors Que Minh Luu and Andrew Soo making fluid sense of the film’s alternating presentations of, and inquiries into, the facts. An accomplished film composer in his own right, Lancaster also ensures that the pic sounds a treat: Matteo Zingales’ lovely score balances jaunty derring-do and elegiac reflection in much the same proportion as the film itself.