'Flying Home': Film Review

Mauna Kea/Otomatic
A film that plays like a Lasse Hallstrom adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, except that neither were actually involved.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" lead Jamie Dornan stars in this romantic drama from Oscar-nominated Belgian director Dominique Deruddere.

A slick wolf of Wall Street finds himself in a grimy pigeon loft in rural Flanders in Flying Home, an English-language feature from Oscar-nominated Belgian director Dominique Deruddere.

A film that plays like a Lasse Hallstrom adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, except that neither Hallstrom nor Sparks were involved in any capacity, this classically concocted melodrama is noteworthy mainly because it offers former Calvin Klein model and future Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan his first romantic lead role, which should be enough to attract the interest of smart niche distributors who could time the film’s release to coincide with the avalanche of publicity that Dornan’s involvement in Grey is bound to generate. In its native Flanders, it made a tidy if not spectacular $500,000 when it was released last April.

Competitive pigeon racing in rural Belgium may sound like an unlikely background for a transatlantic, mostly English-language romance but Deruddere finds just the right angle to make it fly. Appropriately, the film opens high up in the clouds, in a private plane that carries Colin (Dornan), a Wall Street whiz kid, to a Middle Eastern emirate, where he'll try to convince a sheik (Ali Suliman) to invest his billions in a fund run by Colin’s firm rather than that of a rival’s. The oil billionaire has already decided to go with the competition but, as Deruddere slyly suggests, a potentially lucrative business deal is much more important to Colin than even sex -- though admittedly it is sex with a nameless Barbie doll in his fancy, all-glass apartment overlooking a New York skyline clearly added in post-production.

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Writer-director Deruddere’s plot gears grind into view when it is revealed that the Arabian’s an unlikely lover of competitive pigeon racing and he dreams of winning the prestigious Barcelona race. In order to achieve that goal, he needs a supersonic bird that’s owed by a mulish Flemish pigeon breeder, Pauwels (Jan Decleir), who has declared he’ll never sell it, at any price, to anyone.

Cue the scene in which Colin lands in Belgium, drives his inconspicuous rental car to the tiny village where Pauwels lives, gets the tires stuck in the mud and then has to run through a rainstorm to the local church for shelter. Though Colin’s love interest hasn’t even made an appearance yet, the scene’s already a first dreamy romantic moment in the Hallmark or Mills & Boon tradition and the first of several that, not all that accidentally, turns Dornan’s extremely fit silhouette -- here slowly rising to the surface through his increasingly clingy white shirt -- into the face and body that’ll launch a thousand future GIFs and Internet memes.

The local, somewhat crazy parishioner, affably played by Flemish veteran actor Josse De Pauw, is one of those screenplay constructs that speaks perfect English, has a sense of humor -- “no Internet here,” he says, “God is my provider” -- and is a WWI nut, a necessity because Colin pretends to be looking for the grave of an ancestor who died in Belgium during the Great War. Of course the priest also knows the conspicuously single local village girl, Isabelle (the earthy Charlotte De Bruyne), who serves beer at the deserted pub down the road. Even more convenient, Isabelle turns out to be the granddaughter of grouchy Pauwels, with whom she’s been living since the death of her parents.

Exactly like any penny romance, there’s little doubt about where all this is headed. Instead of narrative surprises, what a film like this needs is a cast of convincing characters that seem to do things that seem contextually plausible for the audience to be swept away by the story, and strictly on those terms, Deruddere, who also wrote the screenplay, delivers. There are even a few clever ways in which Colin’s cover, the WWI story, are tied into the overall narrative, and a couple of gratuitous-seeming shots of the gorgeous Flemish countryside will turn out to have narrative value later on.

Colin’s not a very demanding role and Dornan’s at his most convincing when he doesn’t have to deal with the occasionally predictable lines of dialog. He has an easygoing chemistry with De Bruyne (Little Black Spiders) that’s low-key but believable; if it seems unlikely he’d forsake billions or an entire career to be with her, there is still a sense that Isabelle’s more special and real than any of the disposable trophy bimbos Colin seems to have dated so far. This is of course also partly due to De Bruyne’s performance, which is charismatic and genuine, turning her character into a natural, down-to-earth opposite of the sleek but vacuous world Colin represents. Colin’s family backstory, however, awkwardly shoehorned into the third act, is meant to almost excuse or at least explain his behavior but instead comes off as simply grating because time restrictions -- this is the third act, hurry! -- force Deruddere to boil everything down to facile stereotypes and plot twists that aren't twists so much as narrative short cuts.

Technically, the film looks very slick, with production designer Hubert Pouille, who also worked with Deruddere on Everybody's Famous, turning the Flemish village where most of the action is set into something out of a picture postcard, which in turn helps turn the story into something of a modern -- but not too contemporary -- fairytale. Dutch cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, no doubt with the help of some FX specialists, provides some spectacular airborne shots, though the most breathtaking might be the sight of thousands of pigeons being freed from their cages simultaneously at a beach for the start of the Barcelona race. The music, courtesy of German composer Wolfram de Marco, is propulsive with a hint of thriller-like mischief in the early going before transforming into full-blown, feel-good orchestral mayhem.

Production companies: Otomatic, Kanakna Productions, Twenty Four 9 Films

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Charlotte De Bruyne, Jan Decleir, Ali Suliman, Josse De Pauw, Viviane de Muynck

Writer-Director: Dominique Deruddere

Producers: Dominique Deruddere, Ludo Poppe, Philipp Steffens

Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden

Production designer: Hubert Pouile

Costume designer: Lorette Meus

Editor: Els Voorspoels

Composer: Wolfram de Marco

Sales: Media Luna

No rating, 96 minutes