The love-story half of `Harrison's Flowers' wilts

March 15, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Harrison's Flowers gets the hell of war right and struggles to depict the unyielding passion of love. But the two sides make for an uneasy mix, one that not even the actors seem comfortable with.

In this tale of a photojournalist reportedly killed during the early days of the war in Yugoslavia and the woman who refuses to believe he is dead, French writer-director Elie Chouraqui (Les Marmottes) stubbornly insists on giving each strand of the story equal play. But the war half clearly is more believable and compelling. The love story gets us into the war story (barely - the first third of the film is strictly standard-issue stuff), but then is only a distraction.

Harrison Lloyd (David Straithairn) is a photojournalist losing his passion; married with two kids, he's no longer willing to take the risks inherent in the job. He wants to quit, and says so to his boss at Newsweek (Alun Armstrong), who nevertheless persuades him to hang on a while longer.

A few days later, Lloyd is dispatched to cover ethnic skirmishes flaring up in Yugoslavia. No one takes them seriously at first, but when reports of casualties mount, everyone starts paying closer attention.

Nobody's watching things more closely than Lloyd's wife and colleague, Sarah (Andie MacDowell). When a building collapses and reportedly crushes Harrison to death, she refuses to believe it. Something inside her would have died along with him, she argues, and nothing did. Therefore, he must be alive.

So she jets off to Austria, rents a car and drives to the border (helpfully, it's unguarded). Within minutes of crossing into Yugoslavia, she's shot at, assaulted and otherwise engulfed in the madness of war. From here on, the movie's a rough ride, but one that's impossible to look away from. Chouraqui's handheld camera seems as nervous as the war-ravaged people he's photographing, adding to the story's verisimilitude.

MacDowell tries her best as Sarah but never loses herself in the role. Her dialogue seems to be coming from the screenwriter, not from the character. (Many of the actors here seem too aware they're characters in a war movie, requiring them to talk and behave in certain ways.) The only steely resolve she musters is fake, and it's tough to believe she'd last more than a few seconds in the hellhole she's thrown into.

Fortunately, another character shows up to help carry the film.

Adrien Brody is Kyle Morris, a freelance photojournalist with a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder. He hates guys like Harrison who have good jobs with respectable publications and, thus, can't possibly maintain the edge one needs to be a crackerjack photojournalist. In fact, Morris once told Harrison as much, during an encounter that - while Morris won't admit it - left him feeling guilty. Although his character starts off as an irritating whiner, Brody has such a magnetic presence that our sympathies soon go with him. With his help, maybe Sarah will survive.

Harrison's Flowers clearly wants to show the moral depravity let loose in Yugoslavia, and does - maybe overly so, to the point where the audience becomes inured to the horror. But Chouraqui is smart enough to personalize things just often enough to jolt us out of our complacency. One particular incident lingers long after the film is over, involving a girl in a brightly colored dress - a trick Steven Spielberg used in Schind- ler's List.

Eventually, Sarah's quest takes a deserved backseat to the war itself, as though even Chouraqui realizes we don't need Westerners on whom to focus our attention. The last-minute arrival of another one of Harrison's colleagues seems contrived, and the ending brings Harrison's Flowers back to the land of the conventional. The film, however, leaves an impression, one that has nothing to do with the lasting power of love, but everything to do with the destructive power of hate.

Harrison's Flowers

Starring Andie MacDowell, David Straithairn, Adrien Brody

Written and directed by Elie Chouraqui

Rated R (language, violence)

Released by Universal Focus

Running time 122 minutes

SUN SCORE: ** 1/2

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