Two fine performances from Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby can’t quite save Touched With Fire (opening today) from itself.
Based on the book “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, we glimpse into the lives of two individuals battling the illness – a man and a woman – as we get to experience the highs and the lows that their afflictions bring. Katie Holmes plays Carla Lucia, a once-successful poet who has swung towards depression and who desperately is seeking to find meaning and a cause for her mental instabilities. Completely opposite of her, you have Luke Kirby playing Marco, a deranged man who calls himself “Luna” and who is obsessed with cosmos. Both Carla and Luna find themselves in a mental ward, where they bond over their shared love of poetry, discover their similarities within the disease, and try to navigate their lives toward a happier state of being.
First-time writer/directer Paul Dalio has experience with bipolar disorder and you can feel the authenticity of the topic. But he clutters his debut film with way too much “beat-you-over-the-head” symbolism that borders on pretentiousness. There is a lot of talk about “flying too close to the sun” and references to Icarus, the Greek mythological figure whose hubris brought upon his downfall. Carla’s last name “Lucia” in fact, means “to illuminate, shine, flaunt or affect” in Spanish and she is represented in the film as the sun…Luna of course, represents the moon, the yin to Carla’s yang.
Anyone who knows or suffers from bipolar disorder knows that it is a constant battle. The extreme highs are met eventually with extremely devastating lows. The book (and this film) discuss the fact though, that great artistic achievement can be obtained when bipolar individuals are riding the highs…that in fact, several of history’s most accomplished, legendary artistic figures are said to have been bipolar, like Friedrich Nietzcshe, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Edgar Allan Poe. More recently, it has touched geniuses of our time, like Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams.
While in their bipolar state, the illness tells the individual that this unique greatness is only achievable because of their condition. The film tackles this debate head on, eventually concluding that – like other severe afflictions like alcoholism or drug addiction – it takes concentrated, daily efforts in order to stay centered, but that our minds are capable of all kinds of wondrous things.
Carla and Luna fall in love, fall into the pits of hell and then climb out again. But Dalio’s film seems shockingly superficial. As mentioned both Kirby and Holmes dig deep into their portrayals, but I’d like to assume that their is more depth and facets to a person with bipolar than just their disease. In this film, they are defined by their diseases and the film itself seems like some sort of existential experiment. There are some touching scenes with the peripheral players in their lives, like Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) and Luna’s dad (Griffin Dunne), but not nearly enough of them. The film is so focused on the minds and inner-workings of its main characters that it seems to miss the forest for the trees.
Touched With Fire may be one of the more legitimate takes on bipolar disorder to hit the big-screen, but it doesn’t quite burn as bright as it feels like it should.
Genre: Romance, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman, Alex Manette
Written & Directed by Paul Dalio (feature-film debut)
Opens locally on Friday, Feb 19, 2016 (check for show times).