'55 Steps': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
Take those steps in the other direction.
9/7/2017

Bille August's true-life courtroom drama, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank, is too many strides from good.

What are the 55 Steps? An organization of spies, perhaps? No, they're the amount of literal steps that San Franciscan Eleanor Riese (Helena Bonham Carter) ascends on her first day in court (she counts them as a way of calming herself). Eleanor is the primary plaintiff in a California case that aims to give short-term crisis mental patients the choice to refuse anti-psychotic medications, and her story is based in fact. The original verdict, in Eleanor's favor, was handed down in December of 1987, then appealed to the State Supreme Court, which refused to rehear the case. And now the subject is fodder for a routine '80s-set courtroom drama by director Bille August (a long way from his Palme d'Or-winning Pelle the Conqueror salad days) and screenwriter Mark Bruce Rosin (whose last feature film credit was, no joke, 1977's talking vagina comedy Chatterbox!).

In truth, 55 Steps is more of a two-hander about the, ugggh, unlikely friendship between the sassily Catholic Eleanor and her uptight lawyer Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank), a determined crusader, and former nurse, who is more interested in her clients than her home life with her increasingly frustrated boyfriend Robert (Johan Heldenbergh). "You couldn't work harder if you were a machine," says Eleanor to Colette at one point, an unintentionally funny line given that it's really Bonham Carter who's working overtime to impress.

What to say about Bonham Carter's performance? That she appears to be starring in some unholy mashup between Corpse Bride and I Am Sam? The actress certainly dresses, speaks and moves as if she were in one of her former romantic and professional partner Tim Burton's grand guignol Gothics. And her snarly demeanor and exaggerated body movements are so shamelessly self-indulgent that they demean the very person the movie aims to honor. When the real Eleanor's picture appears in the closing credits crawl it feels more like an insult than a tribute.

Many a film has treated mental illness as some kind of sage state, and 55 Steps is no different in the way Eleanor acts as a cut-loose-and-live! guru to Colette. A clothes-shopping trip becomes an opportunity for Eleanor to scold her attorney and budding best friend for both her workaholicism and her fashion sense. And Colette can't help, here and elsewhere, being charmed into submission—to the point that she might very well take that trip to Mexico that Robert has laid down as a relationship ultimatum.

Scene by scene you wish 55 Steps made you angrier than it does. Yet August's docile filmmaking acts as an emotional soporific, removing even the potential camp pleasures of Bonham Carter's histrionics. From her first scene, in which she's dragged kicking and screaming into a cell by dispassionately callous orderlies, the extremity of her performance barely registers. It's as if Divine was flailing around in run-of-the-mill Oscar-bait. Swank doesn't fare much better, merely called upon to react, wet-eyed and dutifully, as Eleanor proves her inspiring worth time and again. The post-Million Dollar Baby draught continues.

Only Jeffrey Tambor, as Mort Cohen, Colette's partner on the case, brings some interest to the proceedings, mainly for the subtle ways in which he acts superior to his colleague while still ostensibly treating her as an equal. There is, indeed, an intriguing thematic thread (unspoken at best, unacknowledged at worst) running through 55 Steps about the sexism that Colette faces in her workplace. Cohen is free with his hands, touching Colette's shoulders and back in ways that are just suggestive enough to be discomfiting. And he's quick to scold her, or just condescend, when it comes to certain case particulars, particularly a First Amendment argument that he insists is a losing gambit. She turns the tables in one of the film's better scenes, grilling him in a court practice session with medical jargon that he consistently trips up on.

The underlying chauvinism of their relationship is never acknowledged, but still intriguingly portrayed at times, especially given the fact that Colette herself never speaks in court. (The most she gets is a brief climactic tribute speech to Eleanor.) It's a man's job first and foremost, and you get the sense that August and Rosin are reaching for a parallel with Eleanor's own situation—that even institutions at legal loggerheads have a self-same inequality that goes continually unmentioned.

Better thing to engage with, anyway, than Bonham Carter's thick-slice hamming.      

Production Companies: Elsani Film GmbH, Potemkino Port bvba, MMC Movies Köln GmbH

Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Tambor, Johan Heldenbergh, Cynthia Hoppenfeld

Director: Bille August

Screenplay: Mark Bruce Rosin

Executive Producers: Helena Bonham Carter, Hilary Swank, Daniel Grodnik, Mary Aloe, Nicki van Gelder, Jürgen Grethler, Stuart Berton, Rolf Schuebel, Iris Dugow, Ger Wiersma

Producers: Anita Elsani, Sara Risher, Mark Bruce Rosin, Lesley Neary, Laurie Shearing

Cinematography: Filip Zumbrunn

Editing: Hansjörg Weißbrich

Production Designer: Merijn Sep

Sound: Michael Schlömer

Original Score: Annette Focks

Publicist: PR Works International

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

115 minutes

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