Freckle-faced, prairie-voiced and fiercely independent, Hilary Swank's depiction of aviator Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair's biographical film Amelia is of a high order. It ranks with recent portrayals of Ray Charles by Jamie Foxx and Truman Capote by Philip Seymour Hoffman and could be similarly awards-bound.

The classically structured bio will appeal to grown-ups, history buffs and lovers of aeronautics, but in showing how the flier was one of the most lauded celebrities of her time, it also might appeal to youngsters. Smart marketing by Fox Searchlight, which releases the film stateside Friday (October 23), will expose the film to students and educators, and Swank's sparkling portrayal could help attract younger women.

Stephanie Carroll's handsome production design re-creates the 1920s and '30s vividly, and Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography captures the wild sensation of being alone high in the sky. Composer Gabriel Yared's orchestral score -- muscular in the aerial scenes, jovial where it needs to be and foreboding in its evocation of Earhart's fate -- ranks with his Academy Award-winning music for The English Patient.

The screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan is based on two books about Earhart -- Susan Butler's East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell's The Sound of Wings -- and is almost old-fashioned in its linear path. Without expositional clutter, it provides as much information as is needed for those not familiar with the character while taking time to show the woman's no-nonsense approach to intimacy as well as the business of flying.

The script has input from Gore Vidal, who is portrayed as a child in the film by William Cuddy. He became close to Earhart when she had an affair with his father, noted aviation pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), and there is a charming scene in which she explains to the frightened boy why her bedroom has walls covered in images from the jungle.

The film is framed by Earhart's ill-fated attempt to fly around the world in 1937, with flashbacks to her introduction to flying and her burst into worldwide fame. Richard Gere plays publisher George Putnam -- who promoted her flights and became her very understanding husband -- with much charm and is matched by McGregor as Vidal.

Very much her own woman, Earhart not only paved the way for female aviators but helped drive the development of aviation at large. In the process, she became one of the first celebrities to create a major marketing bandwagon, with her name slapped on any number of household products.

The business of flying in those days was fraught with peril, however, and the film does a good job of creating suspense during Earhart's last flight. Christopher Eccleston makes a fine contribution as her navigator.

Most of all, Earhart wanted to be able to fly free as a bird above the clouds, and director Nair and star Swank make her quest not only understandable but truly impressive.