SLIFF 2015 Review – TOUCHED WITH FIRE
Review by Dana Jung
TOUCHED WITH FIRE screens Thursday, November 12th at 7pm at The Tivoli Theater as part of The St. Louis International Film Festival. Ticket information can be found HERE
Two powerful performances dominate the new film TOUCHED WITH FIRE, which examines the sometimes blurry line between genius and madness. Carla (Katie Holmes, who also co-produced) and Marco (Luke Kirby, seen recently on TVs RECTIFY) are two creative and restless poets who are also bi-polar. They each display an almost obsessive need to write and perform their verse at local poetry bars. After a chance meeting attending group therapy in the mental ward of a hospital, the two find in each other a kindred spirit with a common bond—the burning need to create.
Though not really a film version of the book TOUCHED WITH FIRE, the film is informed by the basic themes of that work. Published in 1993, and subtitled “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” TOUCHED WITH FIRE was written by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. Much of her work shows incredible insight into the condition of manic-depressive behavior (she herself suffered from the disorder, which she details in her other books), and TOUCHED WITH FIRE contains several case studies of famous artists, writers, and other creative people—including Lord Byron, one of the great Romantic poets.
Around these themes, writer-director Paul Dalio has made a thoughtful, touching, and beautifully acted film that asks many questions with no easy answers. What is the relationship between artistic expression and some types of dementia? Can we have true art without the influence of at least some sort of non-normal perception of reality? How responsible are creative people to live a life of normalcy, with the responsibilities of jobs, homes, and families? Almost mirroring the highs and lows of typical bi-polar behavior, the film tells the story from both sides. We see the “manic” exuberance of two people falling in love amid fantastical elements in lovely, visually wonderful scenes at the mental hospital. Later, we witness the depression and dark moods as the realities of parental pressure and the stress of a committed relationship deepen. Holmes is a naturally gifted actress who totally loses herself in the role of Carla. Wearing little makeup, with an almost haggard expression from her terminal sleeplessness, Holmes rides the mood swings of Carla with great depth and passion. From the scene of her first interaction with her mother (Christine Lahti in fine support), when Carla chokingly asks, “When did it start? What caused it?” we are rooting for her to find the answers we know she never will. Kirby is equally impressive, whether he’s spouting the most intellectual yet paranoid rap poetry we’ve ever heard, or trying to fight through his illness for the sake of Carla.
After the highs, when we come to the lows of the love story, the film raises its central question: Is manic-depressive behavior a gift, to be set free and nurtured, or is it an illness, to be medicated and controlled? TOUCHED WITH FIRE seems to see the value in both points of view, and even presents the notion that both may be necessary in some form in order to create lasting works of art. And as both an adult romantic drama, and as a study of the effects of bi-polar behavior on artistic expression, TOUCHED WITH FIRE succeeds admirably.