The main problem with “55 Steps,” the true-life recount of patients’ rights lawyer Colette Hughes and her mid-1980s defense of a mistreated, mentally disabled woman, Eleanor Riese, is that, at least in the hands of director Bille August and screenwriter Mark Bruce Rosin, the story is just not that interesting.
That’s not to say that Riese’s case, which involved the right of competent, involuntarily committed hospital mental patients to participate in their own treatment decisions, wasn’t important and impactful. But the filmmakers’ choice to focus so heavily — and, unfortunately, dully — on the odd-couple friendship between the tightly-wound, workaholic Hughes (Hilary Swank) and the brashly spirited Riese (Helena Bonham Carter) instead of on the bigger-picture legal wranglings and wider effects of the landmark lawsuit against a San Francisco hospital may point to the chapter’s cinematic limitations.
Still, the trial preparation and courtroom scenes that do exist, most of which also feature Jeffrey Tambor as Hughes’ legal partner, are burdened with medical and pharmaceutical jargon that slows what little energy and momentum August (“Pelle the Conqueror,” “The House of the Spirits”) manages to build.
The wild-haired Carter has the flashier role and, although she digs into it with gusto, she’s all over the emotional map. But she’s still more entertaining than Swank’s plodding, hemmed-in Hughes. If only the two had switched roles — now that might have been interesting.
Rated: PG-13, for some thematic elements/disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 16, Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; also on VOD