May 10, 2007

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The Flying Scotsman (PG-13)
A clinical case of the blues can’t keep a talented athlete from realizing his dreams in The Flying Scotsman, the biopic of cyclist Graeme Obree.

Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) loves bicycles. He owns a (failing) bike shop in his small town, he races and he earns a living as a bike messenger. He’s won enough to be recognized by fellow bike messenger Malky (Billy Boyd), who encourages him to get back in the competition circuit. Obree and especially Obree’s wife Anne (Laura Fraser) aren’t so sure. They have bills to pay, they have babies and Obree has a tendency to get sad. Curled up on the floor and crying sad.

Nevertheless, he decides to get back in the bike mix, perhaps to try for the record for distance traveled in an hour. A tinkerer as well as a rider, Obree starts to work not only on his own endurance and strength but also on the shape of the bike. Pulling parts from a washing machine and reshaping the handlebars and seat, he creates a bike he rides in the “superman position” which helps him compete for the world’s record.

As the hero does in all good sports biopics, Obree gets himself an external villain in the form of race officials who object to his bike, his position and his winning of competitions. They constantly change the rules to make his participation harder. Internally, Obree struggles against feelings of worthlessness and depression caused in part, we are told, by childhood bullies who tormented him.

Depression makes a regular appearance as a movie and TV character trait (The Sopranos, for giant example) but treating it as an illness and not just a character quirk must still be rare enough that I found this movie’s rather unsubtle Afterschool Special approach to the issue kind of refreshing. Depression and anxiety or whatever plagues Obree is treated like a medical malady rather than a personal flaw — he doesn’t just decide not to be depressed. Obree eventually realizes that he might be better off if he got some help, just as a runner might decide it’s time to see the physical therapist or an artist might decide to see someone about those migraines. You don’t have to be some mopey-faced cliché to suffer from depression, you can be an ambitious, clever guy with a family and friends, this movie tells us.

The problem is that this movie tells us that a lot in really overt, “a very special Facts of Life” kind of ways. This on top of many, many sports clichés turns the story into one big plot-by-Mad-Libs creation where “cycling” could easily be replaced by “football” and “depression” could easily be replaced by “heart problem” or “racial injustice” and you’d have just about every other sports movie ever made.

The Flying Scotsman is solidly interesting, with glimpses into a sport not often covered in the movies (have there been any, really, since Breaking Away?) and an earnest handling of Obree’s illness. It is improved by the lack of an American-style swelling score but could have used fewer of our other storytelling crutches as well. C+

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements and strong language. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon and written by John Brown, Declan Hughes and Simon Rose, The Flying Scotsman is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by MGM. It is currently playing in the Boston area and in Methuen, Mass.