“55 Steps” tells two stories. The first is a legal drama based on the true story of Eleanor Riese, a psychiatric patient who, in the late 1980s, sued a San Francisco hospital for the right to refuse medication whose side effects she believed were harming her. The second is the story of the friendship that eventually grew out of her relationship with her lawyer, the patient’s rights attorney Colette Hughes.
The second of these two narrative arcs — as brought to vivid life by the pair of fine actresses portraying Eleanor and Colette, Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank — is the more stirring.
The drama of informed consent, which was then not the law for California mental patients, opens in 1985 with a phone call from Eleanor, then a patient at St. Mary’s Hospital, to a legal-aid hotline. What is quickly laid out, under the no-nonsense direction of Danish filmmaker Bille August (“Les Misérables”), working from an at-times overly dry screenplay by Mark Rosin, are the parameters and stakes of the case. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and mild mental retardation, Eleanor simply wants the right to participate in a conversation with her doctor about the dosage and type of antipsychotic medication she receives. If Colette and her partner (Jeffrey Tambor) agree to take the case — and they swiftly do — Eleanor will be representing 150,000 other patients. (This fact is mentioned about four more times over the course of the film, which is about four times too many.)
But while the legal maneuvering and courtroom theatrics proceed with the alternating setback/victory structure that is endemic to this sort of thing, the other film — the one about the unlikely relationship between the two main characters — is quietly taking shape, with an eccentric pacing and a parcel of emotional rewards that are on a par with the film’s legal triumphs.
As Eleanor, Bonham Carter delivers a sweetly oddball performance playing a high-maintenance but fiercely determined grouch who is mostly impossible to like. Swank, for her part, is no picnic either: A former psychiatric nurse who discovered law later in life, her Colette is a largely charmless workaholic.
But somehow, these two difficult people are easy to watch, at least on the screen. They are honest to a fault, which is, in the end, their charm. “You know, Eleanor, you’re not gravely disabled,” Colette tells her client and friend. “You’re gravely obnoxious.”
To which Eleanor cackles uproariously in reply, as the screen crackles with the acerbic chemistry generated by this oddest of odd couples.
PG-13. At the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains brief partial nudity, some mature thematic elements and disturbing images. 115 minutes.