Dir: Douglas Mackinnon. UK. 2006. 105mins
The triumph of the sporting underdog may be a triedand tested narrative convention but TheFlying Scotsman lends an extra human dimension to the formula; championcyclist Graeme Obree wasn't just chasing records hewas also fighting personal demons. Belying its fractured production history,Douglas Mackinnon's feature emerges as a solidly crafted, carefully balancedbiographical heartwarmer that has a built-in appealfor cycling devotees and an older demographic who appreciate the virtues of awell-told personal story.
The film's lack ofbox-office draws and old-fashioned qualities might restrict its potential inthe challenging UK theatrical market but it should generate modest returns andcan expect positive word of mouth. Subsidiary outlets should prove morerewarding. Obree's global renown could help the filmmake some headway internationally and further festival exposure is guaranteedafter a world premiere as Edinburgh's opening night attraction.
Obree's fame rests on his attainment of the world one-hourcycling record on a bike that he had constructed himself from scrap metal and awashing machine. He was also world cycling champion in 1993 and 1995. He isportrayed by Jonny Lee Miller as a modest man; aloner suspicious of all authority and stubbornly determined to do things hisway.
The film begins with adejected Obree heading into the woods, intent ontaking his own life. Flashbacks deftly sketch a childhoodscarred by bullying (the speed he achieved on a bike was initially a way ofescaping his tormentors).
We then follow his struggleto achieve sporting eminence, assisted by his manager Malky(Boyd) and supported by the kindly Douglas Baxter (Cox), a local man of thecloth who understands Obree's black moods anddepressions only too well.
No matter how successful Obree becomes, he still cannot find the peace that mightresult from overcoming the sense of worthlessness that had blighted his adultyears.
Told with a cinematic sweepand an admirable restraint, The FlyingScotsman has a sincerity that becomes very engaging. Mackinnon is able torein in any possibility of excessive sentimentality or melodrama that thematerial might encourage and by playing it straight he creates a genuinelystirring and ultimately very moving tale. The screenplay is economical and thefilm has pace, although there are times when it feels slightly simplistic andreductive; a little more grit might not have gone amiss especially in thedepiction of Obree's darker moments.
The sense of restraint alsoextends to the performances. Brian Cox is a model of understatement, lending agentle compassion to his character. Jonny Lee Milleris well suited to his role. He is entirely convincing on a physical level andis seen to suffer as the camera fixes its stare on his sweating features andgrim determination as he endlessly circles the velodromein pursuit of a new record. He also effectively captures Obree'sdry wit, reticence and unassuming personality in his most impressiveperformance for some time.
The Scottish locationscaptured in glowing sunshine and teeming rain by Gavin Finney's handsomecinematography might also prove an attraction for international audiences.
Zero West Filmproduktion GmbH
Jonny Lee Miller