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The Flying Scotsman

Above-average sports drama

Among non-enthusiasts, knowledge about competitive cycling is either unknown or limited to the Tour de France (or as some called it, the Tour de Lance, for seven-time winner Lance Armstrong). Making a film about competitive cycling, specifically indoor track cycling, without relying on sports drama clichés, is next to impossible. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon, The Flying Scotsman recounts Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree brief international success in the early- to mid-nineties where, with a handmade bike and an unorthodox riding position, he held two world records and won the World Championships in 1993 and 1994.

After a brief flashback that follows Obree (Sean Brown) as a lonely pre-teen who acquires a love of cycling through a Christmas present, The Flying Scotsman skips ahead to 1993 where the adult Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) is about to close his bike shop for good. Married to Anne (Laura Fraser), a nurse at a local hospital and a new father, Obree struggles to make a living as a bike messenger. On one of his runs, Obree meets another messenger, Malky (Billy Boyd), and they quickly become friends over their shared enthusiasm for all things bicycle related. Obree also befriends a local minister, Douglas Baxter (Brian Cox), one night after Baxter's antique bicycle breaks down.

When Obree learns that an old rival, Chris Boardman, will attempt to break the world record for distance traveled in an hour at the Hamar Velodrome in Norway, Obree decides to follow suit with Malky becoming Obree’s manager and chief fundraiser. Short on resources and time, Obree decides to build his bike from spare parts, ball bearings pulled from his washing machine, and scrap metal. Obree also experiments with different riding positions, and eventually decides to use an unorthodox position: the “tuck” position (it helps Obree maximize his endurance and cut down on air resistance). Obree breaks the record, but the record stands for only a week. Obree then decides to tackle the individual pursuit title at the next World Championships.

By that point, The Flying Scotsman is a conventional sports drama centered on a sympathetic hero who, despite long odds and multiple obstacles, rises to the occasion and emerges triumphant surrounded by friends and family in the last or next-to-last scene. While The Flying Scotsman dutifully hits all the character and story beats we’ve come to expect from sports dramas, it also goes deeper, shifting focus from Obree’s pursuit of his goals in competitive cycling to Obree’s struggle with something far more difficult, his struggle with clinical depression spurred, apparently, by what makes him successful as a competitive cyclist.

While all that sounds like TV-movie-of-the-week material, it isn’t, thanks to John Brown, Declan Hughes, and Simon Rose’ well-crafted, unpretentious screenplay and Douglas Mackinnon’s sensitive, (mostly) unsentimental, restrained direction. Having spent more than a decade in British television, Mackinnon relies on his actors to bring nuance and subtlety to their performances (which they do), rather than relying on heavy-handed dialogue or over-emphatic music to convey their emotions. Mackinnon knows when to pull out the stops, though, as he shows in depicting Obree’s point of view while he’s racing against the clock (a mix of digital backgrounds and blurred edges for shots of Obree on his bike, and energetic, inventive subjective camera shots of the racetrack).

With so much going for it, The Flying Scotsman ends up as a pleasant surprise, worth seeing on the big or small screen, and not just for cycling enthusiasts or sports drama fans, but for everyone else too.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars