For reasons known only to himself, Richard (Kenneth Branagh) has decided that, because he doesn't fully grasp how things fly, he must construct his own small airplane sans instruction manual and test it out above the rolling green hills of England. But as Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman dying of ALS -- aka Lou Gehrig's disease -- patiently reminds him, "taking flight has more than one meaning."
These are the profundities of The Theory of Flight, a subaverage television movie of the week cloaked in fancy dress and chock-full of hackneyed sentimentality courtesy of screenwriter Richard Hawkins. Director Paul Greengrass adds to the clichés by employing swooping camera movements.
The film's plot is also constructed as haphazardly as Richard's plane. After a stunt to impress his estranged girlfriend by hang-gliding off the roof of the bank where she works -- it's impossible to tell if it's supposed to be romantic grandiosity or a suicide attempt -- he's arrested and sentenced to community service.
In the next breath, Richard's escorting Jane on increasingly ill-advised outings, culminating in aiding her in a quest to lose her virginity. She may require physical assistance, but the smart, stubborn Jane certainly deserves better company than this half-baked nonconformist.
Kenneth Branagh is at his doughy blandest here, but Helena Bonham Carter demonstrates a brittle toughness in the kind of showy role that could easily be all about physical and vocal contortions. It's too bad then that her compassionate, forthright performance is nearly lost amid all the hot air employed to make the leaden The Theory of Flight "uplifting," a journey that's bumpy enough to make viewers reach for their airsickness bags.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.