More noise than signal

The Flying Scotsman

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

There’s a vanishingly small number of British films these days, and befitting its status as a small subset of Britain there’s a corresponding vanishingly smaller subset of Scottish films made these days. Given that when we do make them, we make Devil’s Gate, maybe that’s just as well. However, keen to atone for that unfortunate atrocity, this story of home-grown pursuit cycling legend Graeme Obree showed up for considerable plaudits at last year’s round of film festivals before doing a Lord Lucan impersonation for the better part of a year. Tiring of riding Shergar around the dimension of missing things, it now returns to cinemas and rather gratifyingly, turns out to have been worth the wait.

Obree, played here by Johnny Lee Millar, has had a career filled with ups and downs. We join him on something of a down, his cycling shop in the process of closing down and he’s paying bills by taking a courier job on the mean, terrorist magnet streets of Glasgow. You can’t keep a good man down for long though, and in short order he’s befriended fellow rider Malky (Billy Boyd) and Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox), a man looking for parts for an old bike who winds up embroiled in the ongoing whacky schemes and high jinks. As an aside, if you need any more reason to have more films set in Scotland, it’s because you can have characters named Malky in them. Excellent.

Current whacky scheme: enlist Malky as manager in a plan to break the One Hour cycling record, one that has stood for nine years and would seem to be unbreakable. A new approach is required, which leads to Obree’s much celebrated ‘bike made from washing machine parts’ although that’s a slightly skewed description. Probably little point in recapping further details of Obree’s career, I’m sure there’s any number of cycling history websites that will do that for you. Let’s just say that despite tribulations, things start to go swimmingly until “The Man” starts to poison the well. In this case, the man is represented by Union Cycliste Internationale bigwig Ernst Hagemann (Steven Berkov) who for the purposes of this film will play the part of a pantomime villain in the vein of Stanley Tucci’s character in The Terminal, which is to say that of a needlessly odious and objectionable jackass. In keeping with the tartan clad feel of the piece, I think it’s only fair that we rename the villain of the piece Scunner Campbell.

Allow me to take a moment to applaud the casting directors. If you need someone to be instantly teeth-grindingly irritating, there can surely be few better suited for the role than Berkov. Indeed, catch me in a less ebullient frame of mind and I’ll be more than happy to suggest that this is all that the man is capable of. Still, it’s all that is needed here, so the job’s a good’un. For reasons tangentially nudged against but too spurious to repeat, Scunner and his band of merry board members decide to start massaging and reinterpreting the laws to marginalise and exclude El Obree. Boo! Hiss! He’s behind you!

While I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t stretching dramatisation to breaking point, in the context of the film it works well in turning what may have been an excruciatingly dull bureaucratic paper-chase into a pitched, deeply personal battle of wills. As has been established by great Scottish heroes past and present, Glasgow won’t stand for this; Glasgow will set aboot ye.

Watching Obree set aboot these nefarious city hall pencil pushers is another joyous thing to watch for any Scotch (“that’s a drink, ya numptie!”, “Stitch this, Jimmy!”) folk present, kind of like Braveheart, but with less of an Ozzy twang to it. I’d imagine that this would translate into universal appeal, unlike, say, this review. Scunner Campbell? Is my target audience these days really people that can remember Supergran? Heavens to Murgatroid.

To business. Miller performs as well as I’ve ever seen him, which is perhaps something of a faint praise given that I don’t seem to see him in all that many films, but the lad does well. Boyd is given significantly more to do here than anything since On A Clear Day, and while the performance might not be troubling any awards boards, it continues to prove that Monotone Bloom was entirely the wrong person to be made a superstar by The Lord of the Rings.

So, what’s wrong with this film? Precious little, truth be told. There’s a couple of iffy CG assisted pans that try to shoehorn the “hey, The Flying Scotsman was a train!” idea a little too eagerly to somewhat dubious effect, but even that’s a case of ambition outstripping budget which makes it difficult to hate. It’s a well acted, well told tale of one man fighting against the system, overcoming the odds and so forth. I shall deep six any further clich?s before I call it Rocky on a bike, but that’s certainly the genotype.

It’s not a bad genotype to hail from, and there’s certainly enough significant differences and nice touches to make this worthy of your attention and not dismiss it as yet another entry in the ‘unlikely sporting success story’ sub-genre. And I’m not just saying that because I’m wearing tartan-tinted glasses.