Tales from the cinema, June 23, 2007
Films about cycling - and indeed sport in general - can be a bit of a hit or miss affair, for every Breaking Away, there are at least two American Flyers. Either because Hollywood doesn't understand the nuances of our sport, or because they think that the audience won't, we usually get badly let down. This month sees the general release of The Flying Scotsman, based on the biography of former world pursuit champion and hour record holder Graeme Obree, so Cyclingnews' Film and Theatre Critic Ben Atkins got an advance viewing to see where it sits in the spectrum.
The story of Graeme Obree is a classic everyday tale of boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, boy dismantles washing machine… Hardly the stuff of Hollywood you'd think, but actually his is a tale of one small man taking on the establishment - and winning. It's the classic David versus Goliath story - except that Goliath kept changing the rules halfway through.
The story begins with a lone figure walking through the pine forests of Scotland, carrying a strange looking bike on one shoulder, and a long rope on the other. The introduction to Obree and his personal battle with depression is sudden and shocking as we see the rope go taught against the background of trees.
Cut back to a school in a poor part of Scotland and we're shown the major source of that depression, the bullies that beat him up - and worse - every day of his life. His life is changed though, when his mother and Policeman father (the reason for the bullying) buy him a racing bike for Christmas - those bullies can't catch him now.
"The story of Graeme Obree is a classic everyday tale of boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, boy dismantles washing machine…"
Jonny Lee Miller, most famous for the role of Sick Boy in the 1996 film Trainspotting, plays the part of Scotland's hitherto greatest cyclist. As well as bearing a reasonable resemblance to Obree, Miller also manages to capture a great deal of his mannerisms incredibly well, including Obree's battles with his inner demons, as well as those bullies who continued to pursue him - internally and physically - throughout even his most successful times.
It would be a shame to give away too much of the plot, but it's a well-documented story. He makes an attempt on Francesco Moser's nine year-old World Hour record a week before his great rival Chris Boardman is due to do it. No one but Obree, his wife Anne (Laura Fraser - Vanilla Sky) and his friend and manager Malky (Billy Boyd - Lord of the Rings Trilogy) really believe in the attempt as they try to raise funds for it. In the build to this, he builds his own bike - 'Old Faithful', which now resides in a museum in Edinburgh - using, amongst other things, the bearings from the family washing machine and in doing so invents a revolutionary new aerodynamic riding position.
Battles with the 'World Cycling Organisation' (WCO) over his positions on the bike are beautifully hammed up as the sinister Ernst Hagemann (inspirational casting has Stephen Berkoff at his Bond villain best) constantly changes the rules to thwart our plucky hero - eventually finding a way to ban Obree's 'tuck' position, forcing him to come up with the 'Superman'.
This film is not deliberately aimed at cyclists and cycling fans so leave your anoraky knowledge at home. The film does not display the 'men in suits' of the WCO in a very positive light - we see them scheming to stop him in a darkened room - which is presumably why they're called that. I don't suppose the Union Cycliste International (UCI) would have been too keen on the producers using its name and trademarks in such a villainous way, which is where we come to the biggest shocker of the film for the pedantic cyclist.
The rainbow jersey is one of the most iconic things in cycling - possibly only second to the Tour's yellow jersey - and it is a protected trademark. Obviously, if the UCI weren't to be used by name, then there's no way that it would allow its jersey to be used. What we have instead is a strange diagonal striped thing with some really strange colours on it!
Details like the names of the organisations and the jersey colours really don't matter though, which is why you have to leave you pedantry outside the door. Miller's performance, especially as a man wracked by internal conflict and torment, is outstanding. There are some moments of real pathos and sadness, of real triumph and some genuine humour, particularly his 'washing-machine moment' as he suddenly realises the potential of the bearings.
Obree himself actually did a lot of body-double work for Miller in some of the cycling scenes, because despite the fact that Miller did a lot of work to prepare himself for the role, there was too much full-on riding required in the making of the film for him to cope with. Another more noticeable cameo in the film is made by Eurosport's inimitable David Duffield, commentating in his own unique style over some of the World Championship action.
Granted, there are some Hollywood elements to the film, parts of it are deliberately tear jerking, just as others are deliberately celebratory. This is to be expected, as the film has to try and bring the uninitiated viewer along with it. The film wants you to get behind Graeme and share his despairs and triumphs. We cyclists will obviously do this as we remember him and what he went through to succeed, but people new to the Obree story will need to be brought up to speed quickly with these concentrated emotional parts.
I would seriously recommend that everyone take the opportunity to see this film. Non-cyclists have a great story of one man's personal battle against the establishment, his childhood bullies and his own manic depression, and the rest of us get to re-live the career of one of the great eccentrics and innovators of the modern sport. So long as you go in with the knowledge that this has been given a bit of the Hollywood treatment to make it appeal to the wider world, and that not every detail of the story is as you remember it, you'll really enjoy yourself.