Amelia (2009) Movie Review
It’s already the end of October, which means that the studio films aiming for Oscar glory are beginning to trickle into theaters. The first major film of the season to have much promise is Amelia, about the short-lived life of famous female pilot Amelia Earhart. The tragic tale seemed destined for greatness, if only for the fact that the movie stars Hilary Swank and is directed by Mira Nair. Unfortunately, Amelia is nothing more than a standard biopic, an unimaginative and uninteresting story that is less an examination of the woman and more a snapshot of some historic events.
Amelia is perfectly watchable, with pretty visuals and strong acting. The casting director certainly can’t be blamed. Swank has always walked that fine line between having attractive features and boyish looks, and epitomizes the tomboy qualities of the title character. Swank, one of the best actresses working today, delivers an excellent performance as she immerses herself in the character as best she can. The supporting cast, which includes Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, also are quite good. Gere, as Earheart’s husband George Putnam, fits the part well; neither McGregor nor Eccleston get a lot of time to flesh out their roles.
That’s the problem in general, however. Amelia barely scratches the surface in terms of character development; as hard as Swank and Gere try, their characters seem woefully plain. Though the picture revolves around Earhart’s various accomplishments, most notably her flights across the Atlantic and eventually the doomed attempt to circle the globe (spoiler alert: she dies), it is driven by her unique relationship with her husband. And yet, Nair and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan never appropriately explain what draws the two to one another, or why Earhart decides to marry him. Later, when she cheats on him, her motivations are never explained, and the film completely glosses over the reasons why Putnam takes her back. All of these elements are necessary to explore what makes Earhart and Putnam tick, and yet none of them are tackled in Amelia. The result: a very standard and at times dull movie that tells us what Earhart did but not why she did them. And I don’t buy into the explanation given early on: “Because I want to.”
Despite these major flaws, Amelia is perfectly watchable. Nair offers up fine visuals and scenery, full of scenic views of various parts of the world. Swank’s performance smoothes over some of the script’s shortfalls, and if she weren’t in such a so-so movie would probably have a shot at an Oscar nomination. The film does kick into gear at the end, where things settle down and focus on the final hours of the pilot and her navigator.
Still, if Nair is scratching her head as to why critics and audiences aren’t responding to her latest film, she may want to watch The Aviator. The movies have a lot in common, including a colorful, determined character interested in aviation who wouldn’t let anything stand in his or her way; a story that spans a number of years; a period setting; and many other attributes. And yet, the two are worlds apart in execution. In The Aviator, there is an emotional investment in the characters and the story, and a dynamic layer that drives the film beyond the historical facts. Amelia lacks those things, and that’s why the film never excels.
Amelia has its moments, and it goes out on a strong note, but aside from Swank’s performance, the movie could have just as easily been a good television biopic. At the theatrical, Oscar-worthy level, however, Amelia just can’t compete.
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