No Relief in Sight

Truckload of good intentions couldn't save Jolie-Owen heart-tugger 'Beyond Borders' from itself.

October 24, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In Beyond Borders, Angelina Jolie's performance as a star worker for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees mirrors her off-screen commitment to humanitarian causes. Wednesday she received the United Nations Correspondents Association Citizen of the World Award. Maybe she pushes so many looks of wet-eyed compassion simply because she cares too much and tries too hard.

Or maybe the movie gives her nothing else to do except ooze empathy and love. She created a bona fide action heroine in her last Lara Croft movie, radiating alertness and emotional receptivity throughout her gymnastic exertions. In Beyond Borders she's just a throttled action heroine - an Amazon in Western do-gooder's designer clothing. She parades through extreme climates in smudge-free makeup and elegant ensembles: basic black and purest white. She electrifies audiences only when the script allows her to indulge in a strategic butt-kicking.

Jolie plays a seemingly classy Londoner's cultured American wife, roused out of complacency in 1984 when a dashing renegade relief doctor (Clive Owen) crashes a swank humanitarian fund-raiser and presents a real live Ethiopian boy. In effect, the movie employs Owen's shock tactics. Within the frame of a glossy soap opera about a woman's simultaneous awakening to passion and political conscience, it hurls the audience into horrifying scenes of carnage and suffering in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya.

After Owen hijacks the gala, Jolie cleans out her bank accounts and accompanies the grain trucks she funds to Owen's Ethiopian relief camp. The romance, starting with Jolie sitting at an upright piano in a room and playing her signature tune - Schumann's Traumerie - would normally be inept enough to rouse widespread audience derision. When Owen later shows up at her tent, he quotes what he calls Schumann's "lederhosen"; she informs him that the correct word is "lieder." Then she asks this ardent suitor if he wants something. Of course, the time is not yet right; first she must return to England and discover her husband with another woman.

Over the course of 11 years, Jolie's Sarah Jordan thinks nothing of leaving behind her own beloved children every time she learns that Owen's Nick Ward needs help in another hot corner of the globe. In the unlikely event that this movie is a hit, UNICEF could sponsor the sequel: Home Alone: The International Edition.

The movie's painful, painstaking depictions of mass starvation, makeshift hospitals and chaotic bloodshed catalyze momentary shocks amid growing disbelief at the production's chutzpah. The director, Martin Campbell, helmed one of the best of all BBC miniseries (The Edge of Darkness), and the screenwriter, Caspian Tredwell-Owen, researched international relief organizations for years, including a stint in Kosovo. But together they come perilously close to delivering customized atrocities. The first view of a vulture threatening a cadaverous Ethiopian boy has a potency that dissipates as soon as you grasp he's set up to be Jolie's first "save." The whole movie's predictability undercuts the plot's high-mindedness.

The filmmakers brush in the complications facing relief workers not linked to the UN with too broad - and heavy - a stroke. They put across the notion that international power politics interferes with relief by creating an unsavory CIA adjunct who funds Owen's efforts when no one else will. It may come as news (or history) to many Americans that Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Communists were tearing Cambodia apart a decade after the harrowing tale of The Killing Fields (the 1984 movie about the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 on). Too bad the Southeast Asia episode is just one stop on a globe-trotting extravaganza that's inextricably tied to a grandiose love affair.

Owen maintains his dignity by playing a heartthrob medic as a hardhead and a roughneck. But even he succumbs to bathos in the final scenes that force him to compete with Jolie for self-sacrificer of the millennium. Beyond Borders keeps angling for a peace prize; it might have won more hearts and minds if it came together as a movie.

Beyond Borders

Starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen

Directed by Martin Campbell

Rated R

Released by Paramount

Time 127 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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