Joan of Arc, arguably history's most famous peasant girl, get a monster-budget makeover in "The Messenger," an appropriately over-produced, but not necessarily overwrought, grandiose epic biography from the indulgent mind of director Luc Besson.
From Besson's trademark lack of subtlety (which helped make "The Fifth Element" such a opulent and enjoyable exercise in sci-fi excess) to the babe-casting of "Element" hottie Milla Jovovich in the lead, "The Messenger" is a feast of lavish filmmaking that turns France's 15th Century virgin warrior into a pious, ardent action figure who would fit just as readily into a video game as she would into a confessional.
The movie hinges on Jovovich's performance as the evangelical 17-year-old girl who, without military experience and depending entirely on her conviction that she was an instrument of God, lead a vast army into bloody, ferocious battles that drove the occupying English out of large parts of France in order to seat her Dauphin (John Malkovich) on the throne as King Charles VII.
Jovovich is nothing if not spirited in her robust portrayal of Joan's bursting, dogmatic resolve. She often speaks haltingly, taking shuddering breaths between each word. Her eyes bulge and her nostrils flare. Her mouth is agape. Sometimes she seems genuinely overcome by the power of her emotions. But other times she's just over-acting. Really over-acting. And as her credibility goes, so goes the film.
Like most epics -- especially religious epics -- when you're in the middle of it, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" feels momentous. No expense has been spared to recreate the enormous, chaotic and violent Medieval battles, even though Besson's style of HandiCam photography feels more "Blair Witch" than "Braveheart." No expense was spared in fashioning period details (love them bowl haircuts, by the way) or in getting actors who could impart the import and duality of the supporting characters.
In addition to Malkovich, the cast includes Faye Dunaway as the rightful king's manipulative mother and Dustin Hoffman in the ponderous role of Joan's conscience -- a voice and vision that drums her head with doubts after she's abandon by France and tried, then burned at the stake by the English for heresy.
But on closer examination, Besson is lacking some important elements that bedevil the movie.
He does little to establish the basis of the respect Joan's army has for her early on. He also skips over how she established herself as an icon of the people. One moment she's 8 years old, hiding in a cabinet while her sister is raped and murdered by barbaric Brit invaders, and in the next scene she's aged a decade and is demanding an audience with the Dauphin, setting the entire court is abuzz with stories of her popularity and legend.
With the heavy-handed Christ symbolism Besson cloaks Joan in, this may have been deliberate -- in the Bible, Jesus' life has a similar inexplicable gap -- but it makes the film feel like it's missing a reel.
Such oversights aren't enough to derail what is a respectable, if not spectacular, film. But one can't help but wonder what could have been if "The Messenger" realized its full potential -- especially when you know that Besson, in his capacity as producer, jettisoned the original, more mature director, Karthryn Bigalow ("Strange Days," "Near Dark"), when she refused to cast Jovovich -- Besson's then girlfriend -- in the lead.
Run time: 148 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th November 1999
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Gaumont
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 30%
Fresh: 22 Rotten: 51
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Milla Jovovich as Jeanne d’Arc, Dustin Hoffman as The Conscience, Faye Dunaway as Yolande of Aragon, John Malkovich as Charles VII, Vincent Cassel as Gilles de Rais, Tchéky Karyo as Jean de Dunois, Rab Affleck as Comrade, Stéphane Algoud as Look Out, Edwin Apps as Bishop, David Bailie as English Judge, David Barber as English Judge, Christian Barbier as Captain, Timothy Bateson as English Judge, David Begg as Nobleman, Christian Bergner as Captain, Andrew Birkin as Talbot, Dominic Borrelli as English Judge, John Boswall as Old Priest, Matthew Bowyer as The Bludgeoned French Soldier, Paul Brooke as Domremy's Priest, Bruce Byron as Joan's Father, Charles Cork as Vaucouleurs' Priest, Patrice Cossoneau as Captain, Tony D'Amario as Compiegne's Mayor, Daniel Daujon as Church's Peer, Tonio Descanvelle as Xaintrailles, Philippe du Janerand as Dijon, Sissi Duparc as Mary of Anjou's Lady's Companion, Barbara Elbourn as The Aunt, Christian Erickson as La Tremoille
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