Katie Holmes, in what could be seen as a very definite fingers-up to the church of Scientology, stars and exec-produces this romantic drama about the benefits of psychiatric treatment. Touched With Fire is an exploration by writer/ director Paul Dalio of the how the artistic imperative is both bolstered and disrupted by mental illness, particularly bi-polar disorder wherein the mania can often lead to a flourishing of creative work in direct detriment to the rest of life. It is also partly based on his own experiences and as such as a ring of authenticity which most films about characters suffering mental illness fail to provide.
The film introduces us to Carla (Katie Holmes), a published poet beginning another episode of mania and an artist Marco (Luke Kirby) as they both become patients in the same ward at a hospital. Their relationship grows and much to the chagrin of both sets of parents, they decide to cohabit after being discharged. The movie is as much about the damage so-called “manic depression” can cause to the relationships with families as well as with partners, and ultimately to the sufferer of the illness – blind to the idea that there is anything wrong with them. The insistence by the two patients is that any treatment for the condition dulls any form of artistic expression, but seen from the outside their art isn’t particularly special, just very hard-felt.
Throughout Touched With Fire we are shown the example of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, a depiction of a night sky painted by Van Gogh as seen through the vision of his mania. The connection between the artistic sensibility and the bipolar condition is connected to the title of the film – it is the name of a book by the clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison – Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Interestingly Jamison (also a sufferer of bipolar disorder) appears as herself in the film and makes some very pertinent points. It’s a rather strange moment – useful but redundant dramatically as the story has already reached the same conclusions for us.
The authenticity is the most engaging factor of this film – the performances, with Katie Holmes worthy of praise in particular, are great. The scenes between the powerless families are the most affecting and Dalio has used his material well. It would be nice to know how Carla made a living from being a published poet, as she seems to be doing okay financially, but that’s a fairly small quibble.
The film could also do with a small amount of trimming, the pacing is slowed on occasion by the same point being made more than once. But the dramatic basis for the whole work is simple and actually educational.
Touched With Fire is an affecting watch and something which might well make you reassess your thoughts towards the treatment of mental illness. It is due out on DVD on 22nd August, but since the distributor Metrodome went into administration last week you may need to check with retailers.