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The Great Train Robbery

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A deglamorized Katie Holmes plays a young poet suffering from bipolar disorder in Touched With Fire, a movie inspired by a 1993 non-fiction exploration of mania, depression and creativity by Kay Redfield Jamison.

Written and directed by Paul Dalio — himself a sufferer from bipolar disorder — the movie version teams Holmes with Luke Kirby, who portrays a struggling bipolar wannabe artist who wanders the streets of New York drawing graffiti. Kirby’s Marco doesn’t need much encouragement to advance his avidly delivered theories about the universe and his place in it. He can’t believe that he doesn’t hail from a distant planet where he’d feel more at home. He wants to get as high as the stars.

Holmes and Kirby have been Touched with Fire
Holmes and Kirby have been Touched with Fire

Dalio’s script raises questions about whether it’s possible to live a daringly creative life without simultaneously falling prey to bouts of madness. If Carla and Marco stay on their meds will they lose the creative spark that brings them together when both are hospitalized?

Once released from care, Carla and Marco become a couple, raising questions about how fit they are to make the kinds of decisions that now will be required of them, particularly when Carla becomes pregnant.

Carla’s mom (Christine Lahti) and her father (Bruce Altman) are rightfully worried. Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) is no less concerned.

Both Holmes and Kirby are more than up to the task, and Dalio mostly tells the story from their points of view. In their manic phases, it’s as if both have awakened inside Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a painting that figures prominently in the story. Carla and Marco are energized by the enchantment of their vertiginous upswings in mood.

And that leads to another question. Would it be worth giving up the highest of highs for a stable life or are the peak points of mania so wildly intense and visionary that normality pales by comparison?

The problem Dalio has stems from this focus. Telling the story mostly from Carla and Marco’s perspective tends to make us sympathetic to their desires (particularly strong with Marco) not to give up the inspirational peaks of their manic periods.

Dalio tries to temper this view with an awkwardly inserted, late-picture appearance by Jamison. She assures Carla and Marco that they can take their meds without diminishing their creative powers.

This less-than-organic ploy (almost a public service announcement) comes off as a near apology for shifting our sympathies toward Carla and Marco, an ungainly reminder that bipolar disorder doesn’t count as a higher form of insight and fun.

None of this is to say that Dalio’s movie fails to illuminate many of the problems stemming from bipolar disorder, and it finds credible ways of illustrating bipolar highs without too much overstatement.

And there powerfully observed moments. Near the beginning, Dunne’s character visits his son, who hasn’t been answering his phone. The young man’s apartment has become a filthy clutter of books and junk. Marco has quit his job.

To us, it appears as if Marco’s life has become a hopeless shambles: He, on the other hand, believes he has put his life on exactly the right course.

That kind of scene — and there are others — keeps Touched With Fire honest and affecting.