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There are some stories that always deserve retelling, and that of The Lost Aviator is one: from Saint-Exupery to The English Patient, we enjoy the romantic tragedies of dashing young blades crashing their planes. The story of Bill Lancaster, the 1920s long-distance aviator who fell in love while flying to Australia, who was later accused of murder, and who died an awful, protracted death, has been told before in books, on TV, in a movie (Karim Dridi’s 2009 The Last Flight) and in documentaries — and how could it not have been?
What Bill’s great nephew Andrew Lancaster — director of the 2009 Geena Davis vehicle Accidents Happen — brings to it is a new intimacy by way of interviews with several of the pilot’s descendants. As a straightforward tale and as an inquiry into how families remember, this doco (to use the Australian vernacular) is both intriguing and thought-provoking: where it’s less sure-footed is as the reopened murder inquiry that Lancaster wants it to be. Aviator should continue to land at festivals, with TV sales no doubt ensuring that the Lancaster story reaches a new generation.
Lancaster was a former RAF pilot who, in 1927, attempted to make the first flight from the U.K. to Australia. A married man with children, he did so in the sole company of Chubbie Miller, an Australian whom he taught to fly and with whom he fell in love. Years later Haden Clarke, Chubby’s new lover, was shot dead in the Miami home he shared with Miller and Lancaster. (And that’s just the first half-hour.) Lancaster confessed to forging suicide notes, was arrested, brought to trial for murder in Miami, and then famously acquitted.
It is indeed a great, globe-spanning story, playing into a golden age of post WWI sky-high jinx, forbidden love, discovered manuscripts and sleazy murders in distant lands. Unlike The Lancaster Miller Affair, the Australian TV series from which Aviator liberally borrows screen time, the treatment here is elegant, punctilious and self-aware, always conscious of how the media at the time expertly rode this particular gift horse and made it dance.
“Making this documentary has brought the family together,” declares the director a short way in, somewhat ingenuously. “Hopefully the result doesn’t pull us apart.” This is because Andrew has always felt that Bill was, in fact, guilty. The Lost Aviator is thus set up as a new murder inquiry, 80 years after the fact. But the calm, measured tone of Lancaster’s family interviewees, and indeed their willingness to talk at all, suggest that this is one family that will not fall apart, and that he’s just teasing.
In a satisfyingly busy, well-handled narrative, Lancaster also drafts in various experts from beyond the family, to provide the illusion that this is the definitive investigation into the affair. Many talk with an engaging passion about a subject that has clearly haunted them: Ewen Leslie, narrating Bill Lancaster, sounds pleasingly like Jeremy Irons. But as a reopened murder story, it’s hardly Errol Morris: where, if they exist, are the descendants of Miller, or indeed of Clarke? Where’s the new evidence? And what could we learn that’s new anyway, so many years later?
Lancaster seems uncertain about his true purpose — whether to show how families choose the histories they prefer, which Aviator does well, or whether to inquire into a murder. Those already familiar with the events will wonder whether they’ve truly learned much that’s new: newcomers will have enjoyed a wonderfully researched and put-together documentary, but could probably have done with fewer of those somewhat awkward, almost voyeuristic familial exchanges, which can only lead nowhere.
Members of Lancaster’s family do sometimes seem irritated by his attempt to raise the dust on events they consider to be dead and buried, and perhaps also by his desire to fashion his own story out of events that in some cases continue to impact their lives. This is particularly true of Bill Lancaster’s wonderfully game 85-year old daughter Nina, who’s central to the film’s powerful emotional effect over its beautifully crafted, sharply edited final sequence. The expertly curated choice of music through this and other sequences is also key. Like Matteo Zingales’ score, it feels just right throughout.
Production companies: Porchlight Films, Photoplay Films
Cast: Ewen Leslie, Kipan Rothbury, Yael Stone
Director, screenwriter: Andrew Lancaster
Producers: Noni Couell, Andrew Lancaster
Executive producers: Christopher Chapman, Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts
Directors of photography: Max Davis, Nino Tamburri
Editors: Que Minh Luu, Andrew Soo
Composer: Matteo Zingales
Sales: Escapade Media
No rating, 90 minutes
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