Hilary Swank still makes a habit of taking her work seriously, and doesn’t disappoint in her latest, inhabiting the role of Amelia Earhart in this shiny, if weirdly flat, addition to the pile of bio material on the famed, doomed aviatrix/feminist icon. With her shorn hair and an idealistic light behind her eyes, Swank makes us believe when issuing lines which might seem silly from the mouth of a lesser actress. “I want to be free,” she tells her semi-beau and business marketer/finagler George Putnam (Richard Gere), “a vagabond of the sky.” “Everyone has to fly,” she later tells us in voice-over, “what do dreams know of boundaries?”
Of course, we know about the sobering boundaries-loss of fuel and pre-GPS bearings-which cut Earhart’s ambitions short during a 1937 attempt at crossing the Pacific as part of a journey to “traverse the waistline of the world.” That ill-fated trip is broken up into fragments, part premonition and part postlude, in this film, which follows her 1928 cross-Atlantic flight through her heroic life in the American spotlight.
Alas, Swank’s quietly assured and charismatic performance, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s dreamily visualized odes to the lure of the sky, are rare virtues in a film, which feels flight-worthy only in sections. We want it to be better, partly because of the natural parallel between Earhart’s defiance of gender bias and the intriguing directorial career of Mira Nair, a rare female director in cinema with a large and continuing filmography. Given the sad and well-known fait accompli of Earhart’s exit strategy, Nair’s film falls victim to the curse of the biopic, and has the misfortune of coming on the heels of the far superior aviation biopic The Aviator.
After all is said and flown, the film works its way to an oddly peaceful and tasteful finale, despite Earhart’s tragic and mysterious watery fate. What we miss in the often prosaic Amelia is the kind of poetic response to this amazing story that Joni Mitchell brought to life in the space of six radiant minutes in her song “Amelia.” Joni knew there was a story beneath and beyond the story.