Fittingly for a movie whose title character spends much of his time riding around in circles, Douglas Mackinnon’s earnest biopic of Graeme Obree – the Scottish speed cyclist who broke the hour world record in 1993 on a revolutionary bike of his own design, only to lose his place in the history books a few days later to Chris Boardman – doesn’t go anywhere we haven’t already sped past a few times before. Familiar tropes of the underdog sports story (hard-won triumph, crusty mentor, hostile officialdom) merge with Brit-flick furniture (loyal wife, rural scenery, gawky comic relief) to increasingly repetitive effect, while the heavy handling of Obree’s battle against depression should have come with a crash helmet. The flat result diminishes rather than elevates its hero’s achievements, though Jonny Lee Miller at least brings a convincingly lean athleticism to the part.
Perhaps the problem lies with Obree himself, a curiously inert protagonist given his profession (courier) and ambitions. Flashbacks to a bullied childhood fill in some of the gaps, while an opening sting setting up a future suicide attempt leaves the viewer feeling suitably apprehensive. The big stick in Scotsman’s spokes though is that Obree’s tight-lipped reticence and emotional reserve make him difficult to warm to. Why Brian Cox’s kindly priest and Billy Boyd’s self-appointed manager sign up so readily to his cause is a head-scratcher, as is spouse Anne (Laura Fraser)’s acceptance of his eccentric behaviour (at one point he guts the family washing machine for spare parts). Even his mental problems fail to elicit much sympathy, possibly because Obree is too taciturn to convey his torment articulately.
To their credit, Mackinnon and his DoP Gavin Finney invest the pivotal velodrome sequences with a tension and urgency that get the pulse racing. Miller’s subsequent struggles with the authorities leave us saddle sore, though, Steven Berkoff’s phoned-in performance as a German bureaucrat typifying the lack of imagination in a film that deflates before the eyes like a punctured inner tube.