'The Flying Scotsman' is the true underdog story of amateur cyclist Graeme Obree. The film follows his attempts to win at the world championships on a homemade, ramshackle bicycle he lovingly put together with parts of household appliances.
Jonny Lee Miller plays the beleaguered cyclist who struggled with funding, mental illness and antagonism from the world cycling governing body on the bumpy road to success. He was helped along the way by the undying support of his wife Anna (Fraser), manager and friend Malky (Boyd) and spiritual advisor Reverend Baxter (Cox).
Obree set his sights on winning the world one-hour distance record, which is a notoriously strenuous test. With no sponsorship, he constructed his own bicycle, and adopted a new riding position which was more aerodynamic. With his handlebars under his chest and his torso horizontal to the ground he could shave vital seconds off each lap in the velodrome.
Hours of gruelling preparations, brutal long rides in the hills around his home and furious pedalling on a cycling machine increased his stamina and strength. His unsightly but speedy bike 'Old Faithful' eventually took him to the Hamar Velodrome in Normandy in 1993 as he went about trying to break the world record.
Francesco Moser had held the record for nine years before Obree tried to take it on. Despite the significance of challenging this feat, the racing scenes themselves are surprisingly flat and unexciting. This may be the nature of the race, which took place in a large, deserted stadium. Only Obree's wife, manager, time keepers and World Cycling Federation officials were there to witness his stab at cracking the 51km record held by Moser.
Although this is probably factually accurate, it doesn't make for good cinema, and dramatic tension is noticeably absent. The cinematography adopted to capture the exhilaration of cycling is successful though. Shallow focus and swift panning shots portray Obree's speed and physical exertion well.
The issue of his depression is only hinted at, never fully tackled. We see him slumped on steps sobbing while others drink champagne and toast to his success. In another harrowing scene we see Obree hide from a childhood bully who comes to taunt him over his fall from grace. However, his suicide attempt seems almost incongruous as his mental illness is never fully addressed, with only oblique references to his 'moods'.
Jonny Lee Miller puts in a gentle, considered performance as Obree, although the character is somewhat opaque in his hands. Billy Boyd injects some much needed comic relief into the proceedings as plucky Malky, but the most notable performance comes in the form of Brian Cox's local minister, a quietly understanding man.
Director Douglas Mackinnon takes an almost simplistic approach to his life, as Obree time and time again sweeps aside whatever obstacle to success that stands in his way. We never really feel like we get under the surface of what drove him to achieve what he did. He is undoubtedly an interesting man with an interesting story to tell, but that is not realised here.