Is the ability to hit wider extremes of emotions something that should be encouraged, or treated? That’s the question, in a sense, at the center of Touched with Fire, a love story between two people with different ways of approaching their experiences with bipolar disorder.
Marco (Luke Kirby) and Carla (Katie Holmes) are artists each in the midst of mania when they’re placed into the same therapy group in a psychiatric hospital. While at first they clash, they quickly become the center of each other’s world. As they go through various stages of mania and depression, they attempt to build a life with each other against the advice of their families and their doctors, particularly since their initial relationship only exacerbated each other’s mania – which was then exacerbated when they were forced apart in the hospital.
Creating more of a challenge are the different ways Marco and Carla think of being bipolar. For Marco, his mania is a time where he believes he can experience the world with a broader range of feelings. For Carla, though, there’s a constant attempt to figure out what triggered her bipolar states, and whether or not she can manage it. Since both Marco and Carla channel themselves into their art, their relationship is built around the art they can create, and what influences their natural or medicated states have on their creative abilities.
The way that Touched with Fire handles bipolar disorder is handled with care by writer/director/co-editor/composer Paul Dalio. Dalio has dealt with manic depression himself, and he incorporates parts of his own experience into Marco’s character. But if he’s more present in Marco, and many of the film’s more memorable moments come from the euphoria of Marco and Carla’s mania, his story ultimately sides slightly more with Carla’s perspective.
One scene in particular effectively, if roughly, shifts clearly towards Carla’s perspective. At one point, Marco and Carla meet with Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the book Touched with Fire (the actual book which inspired the film’s title), who discusses with the couple about whether medication will dull their creativity. Jamison understandably sides with Carla in thinking it’s workable, when the right dosage is found.
Unfortunately, that shifting also marks the film’s more self-aware moments. The growing disagreements and actions from Marco and Carla feel less natural from scene to scene. The film may embrace Carla’s position, but it doesn’t really dismiss Marco’s perspective in the process. Touched with Fire wants to embrace the idea that great art can come from these states of mind, which certainly sounds admirable. But it wants to highlight as many different talents as possible as being bipolar, going so far as to dedicate the film to all of the artists listed in Jamison’s book at the film’s end – and it’s a lengthy list, filled with notable historical figures for whom the diagnosis of bipolar may be specious at best.
Still, Dalio does show some talent in his earlier scenes as a writer, and in how he stages the material as well. The camera work matches the states of mind for the characters, with the opening portion of the film using a handheld camera to signify something off-balance. The camera becomes more stationery as the two enter the hospital, only to become more fluid as Marco and Carla begin their relationship. Dalio’s work is matched well by the performances of his actors, with Holmes giving one of the best performances of her career and Kirby matching her scene-for-scene.
While it doesn’t completely hold up by the end, Touched with Fire does present some intriguing ideas about embracing and controlling one’s attributes, and how people with bipolar disorder navigate their lives. And if nothing else, Dalio, Holmes and Kirby create welcome three-dimensional looks at people with this diagnosis.