High in the sky

First things first: Those with an aversion to heights are advised to proceed with caution when viewing The Walk, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization of the accomplishment by French wire-walker Philippe Petit to walk across a wire he had surreptitiously placed between the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and an awesome array of CGI trickery, Zemeckis places the viewer right up there on the wire – and it’s an awe-inspiring, head-spinning experience. Even those not prone to vertigo might well find this film a hair-raising, sweat-inducing experience.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Petit, who narrates the story while standing – or sometimes lounging – atop the Statue of Liberty, within sight of those Twin Towers of yesteryear. Despite a French accent that takes a little getting used to, Gordon-Levitt brings a confidence, an assurance and a charm to the character. Not only is Gordon-Levitt one of our best young actors – and a solid writer/director, as he showed with his 2013 debut Don Jon – but here he really gets to shine as a movie star, playing Philippe as larger than life, but always human.

Ben Kingsley, himself sporting quite an accent, plays Petit’s mentor, circus impresario Papa Rudy. It’s the prototypical crusty but lovable, tough but tender father-figure role, and Kingsley plays it with delightful aplomb, slicing the ham judiciously and deliciously. He can do no wrong.

To carry out what he calls his “coup,” Philippe assembles a team of fellow “anarchists,” an appealing ensemble including Charlotte Le Bon, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Steve Valentine and James Badge Dale. They may be breaking the law, but they mean no harm. At a time when Richard Nixon’s resignation was imminent and New York City was in the throes of a financial morass, what’s wrong with a little fun … even on so grand a scale?

Zemeckis has imbued some of his films (Contact, Castaway) with heavy-handed “Deep Meaning” whereas others (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol) have been overwhelmed and trampled by special effects.

But with The Walk, he’s found an entertaining, sometimes magical, balance (no pun intended). It is truly an impressive accom plishment.

The story is of course rooted in fact, having previously inspired the (deservedly) Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, yet it also boasts a showman’s quality in the tradition of Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille and even Georges Melies. Philippe is a showman himself, a master of sleight-of-hand, and a little bit of a charlatan – qualities that Zemeckis revels in revealing, often in the most colorful and extravagant terms. What The Walk is really about is movie magic and pure entertainment.

A sentimental equation

Like A Beautiful Mind (2001) and last year’s The Theory of Everything, both of which this film will inevitably be compared to, A Brilliant Young Mind (originally titled X + Y) details how its principal character overcomes physical or emotional hurdles through remarkable mathematical abilities.

That character is young Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield), a shy and withdrawn boy still mourning the death of his doting father (Martin McCann) in a tragic car accident. Mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), still bereft herself, encourages the boy as best he can. So does Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), an eccentric math tutor suffering from multiple sclerosis and depression.

Inspired by the actual story of math prodigy Daniel Lightwing, the film follows Nathan as he is selected as a member of Great Britain’s team in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Amongst likeminded teenagers and exposed to the world at large, he finds himself. He also finds a friend – and maybe a bit more — in Zhang Mei (appealing newcomer Jo Yang), a math prodigy he meets in Taipei.

Morgan Matthews, who helmed the 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds – which inspired this film – and here directs his first dramatic feature, also penned the original story with first-time screenwriter James Graham. In their attempt to fashion an uplifting tale, they tend to overstate their case. The numerous visual allusions to what Nathan’s thinking often interrupt an already relaxed momentum, and by having Julie and Martin overcome their problems by drifting into a romantic relationship is too much of a good thing, further dampened by Martin Phipps’ syrupy score and mawkish ballads on the soundtrack that are pushy at best, distracting at worst.

Nevertheless, the cast seizes the day – and carries the film — with uniformly lovely performances. Butterfield, Hawkins, Spall, Yang and reliable Eddie Marsan, as a crafty but sympathetic math coach, do their level best to smooth the surface and keep the soap suds at bay. A Brilliant Young Mind may not push all the right buttons, although it’s not for lack of trying, but the actors have this formula down pat.

A Brilliant Young Mind opens Friday !

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