The Flying Scotsman – Movie ReviewMay 24, 2009 Written by JP [Font too small?]
In my previous life, I was a motion picture screenwriter. One of the lessons I was taught was that the opening scenes of a script/film should either surprise or inspire wonder in the viewers. The idea is to hook the audience immediately and provoke a desire in them to see what will happen next. It’s like making a memorable first impression on a job interview or date.
The opening sequence in The Flying Scotsman follows a lone man carrying a bicycle through the woods. He’s not riding it. He’s not stopping to rest. He’s just holding it and moving further away from the road and deeper into the forest. Eventually, the man stops and pulls out a rope from a bag and tosses it in the air. The rope loops around a tree branch. It becomes apparent that this is an instrument of death. The intended victim is himself.
At this point, my mind is racing. I’m thinking this is supposed to be an uplifting film about a real life fellow named Graeme Obree who somehow managed to do something impressive in the field of competitive cycling. I didn’t know much beyond that, but I did know that the film starts a lot differently than what I had expected. Sure, it was a dark beginning, but it was also an intriguing one that reeled me right in.
As a boy Graeme was often bullied by larger and rougher classmates. This cruel existence continually repeated itself because he refused to give up the names of those who beat him up. Fighting back was never really an option either because he was always outnumbered and outsized. That changed one day when his parents came up with an idea to help their son escape his tormentors. They bought him a bike. From that point forth, he was simply too fast for the school thugs to catch him.
The moment his new 10-speed is introduced as a character, the whole tone of the picture shifts dramatically. It becomes rather lighthearted and joyful. We pick up again on Graeme’s life as an adult. Obree is now married and works as a bicycle messenger and as the proprietor of a small bike shop that’s going out of business. It’s not a glamorous life, but at least I got the sense that he was doing something that was meaningful to him. I was only half-right.
Only a few years prior, Graeme was living a much different existence as a world-class cyclist. It’s commonly known that the careers of all athletes have an expiration date. But in this case, the added years weren’t the enemy that chased him out of the sport. It was his mental illness. We learn this through scattered clues that change our understanding of what really makes this former, world class competitor tick.
Luckily for Graeme, a few kindly souls enter his life at just the right time – a fellow cycling enthusiast named Malky and a mysterious, former minister named Baxter, played by the wonderful Brian Cox. These friendships spark new thoughts of glory in the former champ. His ticket to reclaiming prominence and redemption will be a new bike design of his very own.
The odds are naturally stacked against him. The prospect of an amateur designer constructing a professional quality bicycle without financial backing is preposterous. The fact that Obree is using scrap parts from broken down bikes and ball bearings from the family washing machine also doesn’t bode well for his dream. At one point, his friend Malky tries to reason with Graeme by reminding him that most professional bikes require hundreds of thousands of dollars to create.
But there’s more to the story than that. Graeme also wants to ride his newly created bike to the ultimate victory – breaking the one hour world speed record in Norway. Disbelievers abound. But to them, he defiantly proclaims, “This bike’s been built according to the laws of physics. There’s a scientific reason for every single bit of design and that’s how I’m going to break the record!”
I’m a pushover for films about wounded people who refuse to give up. I guess it instills hope in me for own life and in a broader sense for humanity as a whole. I found this story to be particularly compelling because of how the plot unfolds. The tone is so erratic that it’s hard to figure out where it’s going. I honestly didn’t know what kind of victory this man would ultimately achieve or if he’d even survive the journey! I think the filmmakers’ intention was to reflect the real life emotional turns that the lead character actually encountered.
However, some of the technical aspects of the film were a bit lacking. I was not a cycling fan prior to viewing this film, and I wasn’t inspired to become one based on the racing footage. But the performances were mostly first-rate and the story was interesting enough to capture my full attention. In addition, I liked the fact that many of the cliches that are associated with this type of “underdog” film are excluded here. I can’t say more about that without spoiling the surprises that this true story provides.
The Flying Scotsman is Rated PG-13 for a few instances of strong language and a fairly realistic portrayal of severe depression. I think it’s suitable for older adolescents, especially if there’s some adult supervision and discussion about some of the psychological issues presented. It is currently available for purchase or rental on DVD.
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