By John P. McCarthy
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — One emerges from “Amelia” (Fox Searchlight), a handsome, overly mellifluous biography of Amelia Earhart, certain of one thing: The legendary aviatrix, played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, was impossible to pin down.
Those expecting a stirring portrait of a feminist pioneer — Earhart was born in 1897 and disappeared over the Pacific in 1937 — will be disappointed by the ethereal ambiguity offered here. Aviation buffs will also feel dissatisfied, as her achievements aren’t put into historical context or rendered as especially thrilling. The long and short of it: She yearned to fly and be free. But that much we knew going in.
As a love story, “Amelia” does offer a positive message about the bonds of matrimony, even while failing to add dimension to Earhart’s relationship with her promoter and husband George Putnam (Richard Gere). Their unconventional union was tested and ultimately strengthened by her intimate rapport with aeronautics executive Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor).
We’re never clear why she and Putnam fell in love. Yet after warning she wasn’t interested in a conventional marriage and then straying with Vidal, she feels guilty and atones. For his part, publisher and PR innovator Putnam realizes he has exploited his wife for commercial gain.
No one could expect director Mira Nair, working from a script based on two literary biographies — “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler and “The Sound of Wings” by Mary Lovell — to present the definitive take on Earhart’s personality, let alone to solve the mystery of her fate. But there’s a degree of ambivalence and sketchiness to Nair’s film that proves frustrating.
The allure of flying is only apparent at a poetic level, which helps fuel doubts about Earhart’s piloting skills as well as intimations that “Lady Lindy” was most accomplished at being a celebrity. We rarely see her behind the controls of an airplane, and when we do she’s usually gazing out the cockpit window with an amateurishly dreamy look in her eyes or fretting as danger looms.
Covering the period of 1928 through July 1937 — with two brief flashbacks to Earhart as a gap-toothed tomboy in Kansas — the film takes off courtesy of a lush score and well-photographed scenery, yet never climbs high enough or travels as far as it might.
The scenario cuts back and forth between Earhart’s fateful attempt to circumnavigate the globe with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) and her exploits from the time Putnam selected her to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic — as a passenger. Depicting her demise was always going to be the film’s major challenge and the modestly nail-biting climax refrains from any radical conjecture while using available evidence to identify likely causes.
The script doesn’t provide enough opportunity for Swank to exhibit award-winning range. In a role for which she’s ideally suited, the actress often sounds as if she’s mimicking the Brahmin voice of Kate Hepburn. (And Gere’s patrician accent comes and goes like the wind.) Whatever glamour “Amelia” has by virtue of their casting is squandered.
It was incumbent upon the filmmakers to convey the monumentality of Earhart’s achievements to contemporary audiences. However, Nair and company succeed neither in portraying her charisma and sense of derring-do nor in baring her faults. The viewer comes away feeling Earhart was a dilettante and thus unable to control her destiny — a suspicion that undercuts the romance, tragedy and adventure in one fell swoop.
The good news is that there’s little to prevent “Amelia” from being watched by multiple generations.
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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
The film contains discreetly handled adulterous and premarital sexual situations, one use of crass language, and one of profanity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.