"Harrison's Flowers" is a terrible title for a war movie, but it is ironically indicative of the kind of clumsy narrative missteps that plague what is otherwise a powerfully realistic depiction of the horrors of war in 1991 Yugoslavia.
Its traumatic, up-close, street-by-street guerilla warfare scenes trump the battle-scarred authenticity of slicker recent combat flicks like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers," in part because you can't help but feel closer to the danger. The film's characters are not soldiers, they're civilians -- Western newspaper photographers risking their lives to find one of their own who may already be dead.
The catalyst for the quest is the unexpected and incredibly ill-advised arrival in Croatia of Sarah (Andie MacDowell), the man's wife, who refuses to believe reports of her husband's demise. "Something would have broken inside me if he were dead," she declares before leaving her kids with their uncle and jumping on a plane.
The film's first big problem is that it's pretty hard to sympathize with Sarah when she finds herself in so far over her head. She's barely in the country a few hours before she's nearly been killed in her first mortar attack and comes close to being raped by Serbian soldiers.
Why is it hard to sympathize? 1) She's apparently willing to risk making her kids orphans in order to go traipsing around a war zone on what anyone would tell her is a fool's errand. 2) She's ridiculously naive about the ravages of war for a woman who is a photo editor at Newsweek Magazine. She has, after all, seen every bloodied body and bombed-out building her husband has ever captured on film. 3) She's even more ridiculously under-prepared for her mission. "Could you just tell me where these cities are?" she begs in English to a local. Geez, lady, didn't you even bring a map?
Sarah has the dumb luck of being found by some of her husband's colleagues soon after the mortar shell and near-rape incident. As they are each emotionally wrecked in various ways by their own experiences in war, and recognizing that she's not going to be talked out of scouring the shattered, perilous nation, the hardened war cameramen Yeager (Elias Koteas), Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson) and Kyle (Adrien Brody) irresponsibly abandon their assignments and commit themselves to Sarah's crusade.
When director Elie Chouraqui isn't pushing the limits of credibility or veering into "women's weepy" territory with acutely over-scripted, over-acted moments of dime-novel melodrama, he gets busy creating the most jarring, visceral, engulfing cinematic combat since "Saving Private Ryan." Artillery shells explode only feet away from the actors, bursts of gunfire are everywhere, tanks roll down rubble-strewn streets, villages burn, skies are filled with smoke, streams of refugees and piles of bodies are along every other road -- and the only protection the journalists have is to hold up a white rag and a camera, and hope it's enough to keep them alive.
Not one to let strong talents like Koteas ("Crash"), Gleeson ("The Tailor of Panama") and Brody ("Summer of Sam") go to waste, Chouraqui also takes the time to develop thoroughly the characters that come to Sarah's rescue. Brody is especially strong as Kyle, a struggling young photographer with a drug habit and a chip on his shoulder about over-praised peers like Sarah's husband who get paid very well and win Pulitzers while guys like him live hand-to-mouth on dangerous assignments.
But every moving performance or brain-searing battle scene in "Harrison's Flowers" (the title stems from the fact that Sarah's husband keeps a greenhouse) is counteracted by the film's plot contrivances, narrative blunders and continuity gaffes that are simply too obtrusive to ignore.
A happy-family prologue featuring David Strathairn in the title role feels heartfelt but riddled with pre-fabricated moments designed to showcase Harrison's qualities as an attentive husband and concerned parent. As if running through a checklist of clichés, Harrison next dabbles in some hackneyed ironic foreshadowing, telling his boss just before leaving on his last dangerous assignment that "I'm giving it up, Sam. All I can think about now is Sarah and the kids. I feel like my luck pool has run out."
But the film has even bigger problems after Sarah gets to Croatia. In one scene she and the photographers sneak across a field in camouflage gear. Where they got the cammies is anybody's guess. Later in the scene, they're magically and instantaneously back in their civvies, also without explanation.
All the film's difficulties come to a head, however, in its last and most conspicuous bad move: a confusing and completely superfluous voice-over by a minor character that begins out of the blue, 20 minutes before the end. The practical upshot of this is that the audience is distracted during the movie's climax wondering, whose voice are we're hearing? Who is it talking to, another character or me? Is this new information? Do I need to be paying close attention to this?
By the time it becomes clear the yakety-yak is a meaningless error in judgment on the part of the director, the crucial moments have passed and "Harrison's Flowers" has moved on to its epilogue which wraps everything up in a neat little package labeled "one year later" to send the audience home with tears in their eyes.
Run time: 121 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 24th January 2001
Box Office USA: $1.6M
Distributed by: Universal Focus
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 44
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Elie Chouraqui
Also starring: Alun Armstrong
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie brings a dark and gritty tone to this larger-than-life franchise. Along with...
With a spectacular setting and two solid actors on-screen, this thriller builds enough solid suspense...
Those bright sparks at Pixar have done it again, taking a fiercely original approach to...
Slick direction and meaty performances may be enough for some viewers, but this boxing drama's...
Loose and impressionistic, this beautifully shot film traces the career of a DJ who pioneered...
Without a single moment of originality, this found-footage horror movie really deserves to be the...
An intriguing premise keeps the audience gripped for about 20 minutes before the movie runs...