Sometimes I despair for the joke that we call 'the British Film Industry'. Although there are a few notable exceptions, for the most part we seem to be stuck in a rut of producing safe, predictable, old-fashioned 'family viewing' fare that is just a wearisome retread of far better films that were produced years before. How many versions of Chariots of Fire do we need for goodness sake?!
Unfortunately, The Flying Scotsman is yet another 'safe and oh-so-predictable' sports biopic. This time around it's focussed on Scottish world champion cyclist, Graeme Obree.
Obree's main claim to fame is holding two world records (albeit for a relatively short period of time) whilst struggling to cope with depression. His back-story is the key to why this film just doesn't compare well with other films of the same genre - there just isn't enough story here to give the film any real depth, a problem compounded by the fact that a lone cyclist running endless loops around an indoor track doesn't exactly make for gripping viewing as an adrenaline-pumping sport.
The film starts well, and atmospherically, with a 'flash forward' from the main events of the film: a hooded figure, who we will later learn is cyclist Graeme Obree (Jonny Lee Miller), enters a wood carrying his bike and a long, thick rope. The hooded figure ties the rope over a tree and around his neck before jumping off the branch he has climbed up to.
We then cut to a very young Obree being bullied at school, returning home to receive a Christmas present of a new bike. The bike, or more importantly the speed with which he can ride it to escape the school bullies, becomes the young boy's passion.
Fast forward a few years and the now-married Obree is running a run-down bicycle shop that's closing down because it's losing money. Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox) takes an old bike to Obree's shop for repair in preference to the shiny, modern competitor store opposite and begins a friendship that results in him helping his friend build his own bike to compete in World events - a design that will subsequently cause much bitterness and rankle with the Olympic committee who are more interested in standard designs that can enable the traditional manufacturers to make money than in any genuine innovation that leads to improved world records.
With the closure of his shop and a young child to support, Obree is forced to take up a menial job as a cycle courier to suplement his wife's meagre income as a nurse. On one delivery run he bumps into another courier 'Malky' (Billy Boyd) who encourages Obree to train for the world championships and agrees to become his personal manager. We then follow Obree's progress as he deals with the politics of the sport and his own personal demons and mental illness - illness which he refuses to accept professional help on, even after the suicide attempt we've witnessed at the start of the film, at least until there's a sense of closure at the very end of the film.
By all accounts Obree himself is a difficult character, and this is beautifully portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller who captures the charm of a man who captivated his best friend and manager, as well as his wife and young son, and local priest, whilst also showing his stubborn, arrogant self-destructive nature. The film is worth seeing for Miller's performance alone. Unfortunately the rest of the cast can't live up to the high water mark he sets.
This seems to have been recognised by the director and/or writers in that the supporting characters suffer with a lack of characterisation or even basic screen time as Miller is the main focus throughout. The problem is that when you have a film that is almost entirely about a rather uncommunicative, insular man then the end-result becomes equally insular and rather dull to watch.
Laura Fraser, as Obree's wife, does her best with a part that gives no insight into Obree's family life, and no indication as to why she stuck by her husband despite his increasingly erratic behaviour. When Miller destroys the struggling-to-make-ends-meet family's washing machine to build a faster mechanism for his bike we get a single shot of shouted anger when she returns home but from thereonin it's back to playing the 'dutiful, supportive wife in the background' for the remainder. There's no attempt to show her life in struggling with Obree's obsession and mental illness.
Billy Boyd fares slightly better, with more screen time that adds the comedic value so sorely needed, as Obree's friend and manager 'Malky'. But one feels throughout that one is watching Billy Boyd the 'lovable hobbit' rather than any real-life character, and there is zero chemistry between him and his supposed love interest Katie, Ann Obree's best friend that Malky supposedly has a huge crush on. The very thin B-storyline of Malky's pursuit of Katie is so unconvincing that half way through the film even the director/writer appear to have decided to abandon it: we suddenly jump from Katie telling Malky he has no chance of taking her out to the two suddenly moving in together.
Brian Cox as the priest friend who tries to help Obree pull his life together, acts the same character we've seen him play a million times before, in a role so generic and under-written there's no real belief in his back-story - a back story that is so clumsily delivered it would have been more subtle to have written it up on a big placard that the actor holds as he first enters the frame.
In an attempt to cover the lack of any real story, the film invents a cartoon-character villain, in the form of an Olympic Committee member determined to do Obree down. Whilst it may be true that the Olympic Committee had vested interests that conflicted with Obree's 'Do it yourself' approach, the main representative character is introduced with such ridiculous put-down lines and attitude that one wonders why the film-makers didn't go the whole hog and have him constantly stroking a twirly moustache, with loud duhn-du-duhn music sound effects every time he entered the frame.
The sport itself is another problem. It's hard to make one man on a bike in an almost completely empty indoor gymnasium, cycling around in loops exciting or adrenalin-pounding in the way that most sports biopics which have been written to the same formula as this can do. Admittedly the director makes some brave attempts with bike 'point of view' shots and rapid inter-cutting, but it's clearly an uphill struggle.
If you like your entertainment safe, predictable and British and can find nothing else worth watching on TV, then The Flying Scotsman is probably worth a rental. But supplied in a completely vanilla form, with not so much as a trailer for an extra, this is most definitely not a purchase, despite an arresting performance from Miller. The producers can't be bothered to provide so much as a commentary track or interview with the real life Obree or cast and crew, despite the abundance of talk shows around the time of the film's release that took place. If they can't be bothered to put out any kind of extra's for the DVD, why should you be bothered to shell out a premium price for such a lacklustre disc?