The Theory of Flight

South Africa/UK 1998

Reviewed by Mike Higgins


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Following an attempt to fly from the roof of a London bank, depressed artist Richard is sentenced to be a companion to the wheelchair-bound Jane, who has a motor neurone disease. After a rocky start, the two hit it off. Richard shuns his ex-girlfriend Julie.

At his farm, Richard shows Jane the bi-plane he's building, whereupon she asks him to find a gigolo who will take her virginity. Richard reluctantly agrees to take Jane to London to fulfil her wish. Richard then shocks Jane by planning to rob a bank to pay for the gigolo. She asks Richard whether he will have sex with her; he refuses. The gigolo arrives for Jane; Richard sets off to rob the bank where, it turns out, Julie works. Neither Jane nor Richard go through with it. Julie confronts Richard who passes Jane off as his girlfriend. Richard and Jane fly his plane and have sex. Months later, just before her death, Jane is best man at Richard and Julie's wedding.


The goodwill extended towards Kenneth Branagh ran out about the same time as this former golden boy of British cinema started casting his spouses opposite him. It ought then to have been with trepidation that he and present partner Helena Bonham Carter took on this whimsical odd-couple comedy. What's more, Bonham Carter appears spectacularly against type as a motor-neurone-disease sufferer, a role all the more conspicuous given the warmly received performances of disabled actors Rosemarie Stevenson in Orphans and Heather Rose in Dance Me to My Song.

Were it not for the fact that Bonham Carter has striven since Getting It Right to broaden the repertoire of Merchant-Ivory roles that established her, her turn might be dismissed an Oscar-chasing aberration. Mastering a halting speech pattern and awkward wheelchair-bound posture, her performance is a feat of actorly technique - impressive if a little flashy. The source of this reductive portrait is not Bonham Carter alone, however.

From Coming Home to Crash, mainstream film has never quite got to grips with disabled sexuality, betraying an uneasiness which screenwriter Richard Hawkins perpetuates. Whether it's the internet porn Jane consumes forlornly or the electronic speaking device she uses to voice her innermost desires to Richard, these hardware-bound scenes fail to throw any light on Jane's frustrated libido. The script also labours to strike an attitude of easy-going irreverence towards a sensitive subject: "As cripples go, you're really quite fanciable," jokes Richard.

The taint of expediency marks Jane's characterisation. So as not to complicate Richard's reunion with his old girlfriend Julie, Jane conveniently declares that even if sex with Richard is within her reach, she's resigned to the conclusion that a loving relationship is not. Her encounter with the gigolo - she lies frozen with fear throughout - illustrates succinctly whose story Hawkins is more concerned with. Director Paul Greengrass (Resurrected) seems far more interested in the character of Richard. The shots of the construction and flight of his plane essay a gentle lyricism which the film denies Jane in depicting her pursuit of sex. Whereas The Theory of Flight apologises for Jane's desire, it gives its blessing to Branagh's rumpled malcontent. The analogy between flying and sex isn't just clichéd, it's in bad faith as their equivalence has no echo in the way the film subordinates Jane's neurosis to Richard's.

The character of Richard himself remains infuriatingly vague. Why, for instance, does flying in particular obsess him? With only an improbably patient girlfriend and an understanding judiciary to compare him with, Richard's plight looks more like listless self-pity than troubled alienation. This said, one shot alone, almost Loachian in its muted humanism, suggests that Greengrass had it within him to introduce a subtler shade to the otherwise schematic central relationship. Their initial trip to a park having ended in mutual dislike, Jane and Richard are seen watching a kite over the brow of a hill. It swoops up and dives down out of sight, intimating a vaulting delicacy in their friendship which the film sadly chooses not to pursue.


David M. Thompson
Ruth Caleb
Anant Singh
Helena Spring
Richard Hawkins
Director of Photography
Ivan Strasburg
Mark Day
Production Designer
Melanie Allen
Rolfe Kent
©Distant Horizon Ltd.
Production Companies
A Distant Horizon and BBC Films presentation
Line Producer
Shân Davies
Paul Janssen
Sudhir Pragjee
Sanjeev Singh
Associate Producer
Tracey Scoffield
BBC Production Executive
Joanie Blaikie
Production Co-ordinators
Ruta Ozols
2nd Unit:
Sara Morris
Locations Managers
Bryan Moses
Kate Power
2nd Unit:
Patrick Schweitzer
Post-production Supervisors
Jane Hamlyn
Virginia Arendt
South Africa:
Lesley Fox
Fine Line Post Executive
Sara King
Fine Line Co-ordinator
Fabian Marquez
Assistant Directors
Jennie Osborn
Llyr Morus
Rhidian Evans
2nd Unit:
Sean Guest
James Haven
Sasha Mann
Bev Tatham
Casting Directors
John Hubbard
Ros Hubbard
2nd Unit Operator
Peter Thornton
Camera Operator
2nd Unit:
Richard Philpott
Steadicam Operators
Paul Edwards
2nd Unit:
Dione Casey
Visual Effects Supervision
Val Wardlow
Digital Effects/Animation
CFX Associates
Chris Panton
Emma Bateman
Lionel Glass
Art Directors
Tom Bowyer
2nd Unit:
Sarah Kane
Storyboard Artist
Chris Forster
Costume Designer
Dinah Collin
Wardrobe Mistresses
Jilly Thornley
Una Nicholson
Marina Monios
Catherine Davies
Roseanne Samuels
General Screen Enterprises
Music Performed by
Philharmonia Orchestra of London
Allan Wilson
Tony Blondal
Additional Orchestration:
Kerry Wikstrom
Music Supervisors
Paul Broucek
Dana Sano
Music Co-ordinator
Bob Bowen
Supervising Music Editor
Richard Ford
Music Recorder/Mixer
Mike Ross-Trevor
"Nothing Else" by Darius Keeler, Roya Arab, performed by Archive; "Send Me on My Way" by Mike Glabicki, Jim Donovan, Jenn Wetz, Liz Berlin, Jim Dispirito, John Buynak, Patrick Norman, performed by Rusted Root; "Bright Side of the Road" by/performed by Van Morrison; "Mi rival" by Maria Lara, performed by Antonio Machin; "Snatchin' It Back" by Clarence Carter, George Jackson, performed by Clarence Carter; "Have a Little Faith in Me" by/performed by John Hiatt; "You Can't Sit Down" by Dee Clarke, Cornell Muldrow, Kal Mann, performed by Booker T. and the M.G.s; "It's You" by Neville Egunton Staples, Sheena Staples, Tom Lowry, Kendal Smith, The Specials, performed by The Specials; "Piano Music" by/performed by Alan Hawksworth; "Valse Op 69/1" by Frédéric Chopin
Sound Design
Nicky De Beer
Sound Recordists
John Taylor
2nd Unit:
Jeff Matthews
Re-recording Engineer
Mark Phillips
Re-recording Mixer
Robert Farr
Supervising Sound Editor
Danny Longhurst
Dialogue Editors
Elinor Hardy
Charlotte Buys
Pat Boxshall
Stan White
Effects Editor
Jennie Evans
Sharron Hawkes
Juliette Phillips
Charles Evans
Flight Co-ordinator
Richard Conway
Stunt Co-ordinators
Andreas Petrides
2nd Unit:
Jim Dowdall
Brian Halliday
Helena Bonham Carter
Jane Hatchard
Kenneth Branagh
Gemma Jones
Holly Aird
Ray Stevenson
Sue Jones Davies
Gwenyth Petty
Robert Blythe
Aneirin Hughes
Natasha Williams
care worker
Sian Naiomi
Ruth Jones
Nia Roberts
ASDA teller
Dilys Price
Mrs Williams
Jill James
Mrs Allen
Sidney Williams
club owner
Daryl Beeton
club organiser
Deborah Sheridan-Taylor
shop assistant
Frances Lima
Julie's colleague
Buena Vista International (UK)
tbc feet
tbc minutes
Dolby digital
Colour by
Rank Film Laboratories
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011