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November 1, 2009

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Amelia put off course ... again

CONSIDERING the risks Amelia Earhart took, losing her life in the call of aviation, Hilary Swank and director Mira Nair don't put much on the line in their film biography "Amelia."

Swank and Nair play it safe to the point of benumbing this woman's life, leaving Earhart as remote and muted as she is in the black-and-white photos and news footage of the aviator included at the film's end.

"Amelia" is a biopic on autopilot. We get the facts of Earhart's pioneering achievements, her marriage to her promoter (Richard Gere), her fling with a fellow pilot (Ewan McGregor). And we get pretty pictures of airplanes in flight.

But this dowdy movie rarely embodies Earhart's passions, whether for flying or for the men in her life. Swank's Earhart repeatedly tells people how she has to fly or die.

Yet when she's in the air, she's as stiff and closed-off as a passenger stuck in a middle coach seat on a trans-Atlantic flight.

Much of the fault lies in the screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, a script remarkably based on not one, but two Earhart biographies. That should have given the film makers a surfeit of material.

Instead, "Amelia" plays like a Cliff's Notes summation of Earhart's life, the dialogue ranging from languid to soporific, the majesty of her moments in flight trivialized by empty voice-overs from Swank -- "Flying lets me move in three dimensions," "Who wants a life imprisoned in safety?"

In stumbling, choppy fashion, the movie intercuts between Earhart's doomed last flight around the world in 1937, and the achievements leading up to it over the previous decade -- her Atlantic and Pacific crossings, her mentoring of female flyers, her efforts to establish a regional passenger shuttle service.

Lovely aerial images, lush landscapes and rich sets and costumes are the film's lone strengths. In almost every other regard, "Amelia" veers off course.

All the other components for an engaging chronicle are there: a grand life that ends in tragedy and epic mystery.

Period drama that offers the chance to craft glorious images and play puppet master for fascinating characters.

A film maker in Nair ("Monsoon Wedding," "Mississippi Masala") who has a keen feel for bold women and zestful lives.

A sturdy supporting cast that includes Christopher Eccleston, as the navigator who disappeared with Earhart on her final flight over the Pacific, and Cherry Jones, who briefly enlivens the film as Eleanor Roosevelt on a night flight with Earhart.

Then there's Swank, whose career is perplexing. Her breakthrough role with 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" earned her the Best Actress Academy Award, but it looked like a fluke given limp follow-ups like "The Core" and "The Affair of the Necklace."

Then she won her second Oscar for 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," yet lapsed back to more dull choices.

As Earhart, Swank exposes what could be her prime limitation: she doesn't have much range.

She's miserably out of her skin as the stately Earhart, pretty drab, somewhat distant, utterly uninvolving, despite the striking physical resemblance she manages to bear with the flyer.


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