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Given his habit of appearing opposite former wife Emma Thompson, it's no surprise to find Kenneth Branagh acting alongside girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter in The Theory Of Flight. Directed by Paul Greengrass (Resurrected), this is a cinematic oddity - a Brit tragi-comedy about a terminally ill and wheelchair-bound individual trying to have sex for the first time. The result is a curate's egg of a film - by turns entertaining and embarrassing, sarcastic and sentimental.
The surprise is that the film can generate so many laughs. Branagh's character, in particular, is equipped with a deliciously sardonic streak ("That was a time when being an artist was wearing a beret and behaving like a twat," he muses, looking at an early self-portrait). Greengrass and screenwriter Richard Hawkins display a skill for comic absurdity, as Richard plans to rob a bank for the £2,000 Jane needs to pay for a West End gigolo.
Unfortunately there is also a tendency to SPELL THINGS OUT IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Thus Richard's girlfriend Julie informs him that: "There's more than one way of taking flight", while elsewhere it's stressed that, in emotional terms, Richard is the one suffering from a handicap. And do we need to be told yet again that the dying possess special insight into life?
Bonham Carter's portrayal of Jane has been highly praised in some quarters. Yet even with metal plates in her mouth, her head lolled to one side, and a heavily distorted voice, you never forget that this is a beautiful actress mimicking what it's like to be in a wheelchair. Far more engaging is Branagh as the stubbled, dishevelled and not-a-little embittered inventor. In this uneven film, he provides one of his best performances for years.
Perhaps only a director like Almodovar could pull off this story about a crippled girl's sexual quest. Laced with black humour, it eventually succumbs to sentimentality, but Branagh's performance shows his considerable versatility.
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