This time around, Judge Katie Herrell was motivated and inspired by her lonely hours in front of the television.
"The true story of an unlikely champion that inspired a nation."
Recently I reviewed the movie Gracie, a triumphant tale about a teenaged, female soccer player who overcame multiple personal hardships to succeed. The Flying Scotsman is a similar tale of overcoming adversity through sport, but while the former was a maudlin, predictable, and cliched film, The Flying Scotsman is a unique, inspiring, and yet realistic film worthy of becoming an iconic sports movie.
Facts of the Case
Graeme Obree was a little-known cyclist from Scotland when he decided to break the world one-hour track record. Training endlessly on a stationary bike and redefining form and structure with his hunched-over riding position and homemade bicycle, Obree succeeded in achieving the record and revolutionizing the sport. But Obree's innovations were road-blocked by the World Cycling Federation, which banned both his riding style and his bicycle alterations. Obree further struggled under the weight of debilitating mental illness.
It seems sports fans like a fighter who is also anti-establishment. Think Steve Prefontaine, the great distance runner who has been dead for years but is still held up by high-school harriers everywhere as an idol (and who is the star himself of several iconic films about sports).
Graeme Obree, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a similar character. Working as a fledgling bike shop owner in Scotland, Obree's shop walls are plastered with photographs of his amateur success but his countenance reflects a man who feels his prime is past. (Thankfully, this isn't the tale of a Scottish biker shot in Vancouver with fleshy American actors downsizing their figures and upgrading their accents for a role. This is gray, cemented Scotland with ruddy complexions, crooked teeth, and last year's fashions. Miller, a Hackers and Angelina Jolie alum, is an Englishman.)
That is until a character named Douglas Baxter walks into his life. A gruff, shadowy figure, Baxter (the talented Scottish-born actor Brian Cox) appears in need of a pedal crank and strikes up a friendship with Obree.
The true extent of Baxter's impact on Obree remains unclear until later in the film, but his arrival indicates a turnaround in Obree who suddenly decides to train for the world one-hour record. (The transitions in this film are a bit hasty. That coupled with strong accents left me wondering what was happening a few times.)
Soon Obree is pedaling endlessly and his manager/friend Malky (Billy Boyd) is thrust into the roll of fundraiser. Both Malky and Obree's wife, Anne (Laura Fraser) are extremely supportive of Obree's seemingly crazy goal.
The fact that Obree's wife supports her husband's endeavor, at least at first, is a unique trait of an athlete's wife in film. So often the sidelined wife worries and complains about their partner's safety and the time spent training, or they are just as glory and money hungry as their husband. But while Anne has every right to complaints or indulgence, her unyielding support for her husband is contagious.
Yet, in the film, there is also a sense that Obree's wife is facilitating his mental illness by encouraging her husband's all-consuming whims and hiding his black periods from friends. This enabling by Anne is subtle and almost comes across as an act of denial—it is a credit to Fraser that she was able to develop this character so fully, while remaining in a distinctly supporting role.
It isn't until after a particularly bleak and self-destructive act that Anne really encourages Obree to seek treatment. It is at this point in the film that Anne turns away from her role as cheerleader and angrily refuses to support her husband's erratic behavior.
But the portrayal of Obree's mental illness itself feels extremely underdeveloped in this film. The synopsis of the film juxtaposes Obree's cycling success with his mental distress, as if equal partners in his life, but the balance in the film is 80/20 cycling. While certainly Obree's triumphant results on the track, in both the World Championships and the one-hour record, make for good movie viewing, the dialogue and footage portraying Obree's mental struggle could have been equally compelling.
Instead this side of Obree's life is thrust into the corners, alleys, and forests of the film, with little explanation or development. Maybe that's a more realistic portrayal of functioning day-to-day with a mental illness. But certainly wiping a table clean of expensive breakables (as seems to be the hallmark of distress in a number of films) is a more cinematic and powerful way of projecting one's inner demons outward.
It is only in a brief, hard-to-understand exchange between Baxter (whom we learn midway through the film is a man of the cloth) that the audience learns a bit about the origin of Obree's angst. Also, several odd exchanges with a childhood (and adulthood) bully further illuminate a childhood suffered.
But these gray moments do not overshadow the streaking success Obree has on the bike and the flourish with which he challenges the authorities. The race footage of Obree is impressive as the viewer is taken along for the ride seemingly via a helmet cam, but more likely, due to the steadiness of the shot, through a pivoting, dolly-riding, trackside camera. During the race sequences it appears that actual archival footage of Obree's racing are spliced seamlessly into the film. The splotchy exertion on Obree's face is either the result of an impressive makeup article or of 20 minutes jogging in a track suit in a sauna.
This realism, combined with a group of suit-wearing, yardstick-wielding cycling federation henchmen, causes the viewer to root endlessly for Obree as he does battle against everyone around him, including himself.
Athletes who reach a certain level of success have done so through self-devotion and self-destruction, in spite of self-doubt and a weakening frame, and in the face of great pressure both internally and externally. Certainly not all athletes struggle with clinical mental illness but many, many athletes struggle physically and mentally to succeed. The Flying Scotsman strips away the high salaries and celebrity status that seem to equate and engulf American athletes in the media. For all the athletes that log lonely miles in relative obscurity, a story like Obree's is a storied and motivating tale.
Guilty. But now, on the big screen and in DVD format, Obree's story is having a much wider impact. In fact, here in Boulder, Colo., the movie was just shown for free at the local theater.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2007 Katie Herrell; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.