If you think the title sounds ominous, like an elegy to the late Beatle as sung by a children's choir knee-deep in Beulah Land, consider the rest of Harrison's Flowers. There's Andie MacDowell, a performer of light, brittle talent if excellent hair and teeth, plus earnest Everyman David Strathairn, best known for keeping his chin up in various John Sayles morality tales, plus . . . Croatia, 1991. Perhaps something got lost in the translation. The film's co-writer and director, Elie Chouraqui, a Frenchman whose previous movies have been dramas and romantic comedies, most of which never made it out of France, drew inspiration for this feature from a book by photojournalist Isabel Ellsen called Le Diable a l'Avantage, an autobiographical account of the author's affair with another photographer during the Croatian civil war. From this material, published in 1995, Chouraqui along with co-writers Ellsen and Didier Le Pcheur have fashioned a premise so patently absurd, so implausible, they might as well have pitched it to the Oxygen channel: Suburban American wife goes looking for her missing husband in the middle of the Croatian war. But here's the punch line—when it isn't straining credulity or patience, the film is rattling you down to your bones.
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MacDowell is Sarah Lloyd, a photo editor at Newsweek whose husband, Harrison (Strathairn), wins the magazine Pulitzers for shooting atrocity photographs. Recently returned from Africa and its reliably photogenic misery, Harrison has decided to hang up his Canon. But like the movie sheriff who yearns to turn his six-guns into plowshares, Harrison has one last mission in him, as well as a contract to fulfill—which is why he winds up in Croatia, where he promptly disappears. Until this point, Harrison's Flowers has been watchable but undistinguished. MacDowell, Strathairn and the production design are easy on the eyes, and there's grit in a supporting performance by Alun Armstrong as Sam, the editor who sends Harrison to the Balkans. However, a scene at an awards ceremony honoring Harrison's colleague Yeager Pollack (Elias Koteas), as well as a subsequent bathroom showdown between Harrison and a younger photographer, Kyle (Adrien Brody), are the sort of phony, overblown set pieces in which characters don't as much talk as spell out themes in 72-point type. In the men's room, Kyle, nose powdered with cocaine, sneers about journalistic ethics and guts to Harrison, while the beret-wearing Yeager waves a crutch around, and the film itself veers perilously toward the abyss of pure movie schlock.
Then something happens. In the newsroom, Sarah learns of Harrison's disappearance and crumples to the ground, waving off colleagues with a trembling hand. After burrowing into grief, she persuades herself that her husband is still alive, kisses the kids goodbye, flies to Austria and rents a car. (It's strange to think of someone driving into war, but that's exactly what she does. The rental agent worriedly asks if she's going to Yugoslavia, as the last car "came back with holes.") Accompanied by a Croatian hitchhiker, Sarah crosses the border between Austria and a disintegrating Yugoslavia and, on an otherwise empty road, drives past one abandoned farm after another. It's eerily quiet. Back in New York, Sarah had been watching the war on television, and it has prepared us for the sound of gunfire, perhaps for distant explosions, but here, even nature has gone mute. There are no barnyard birds, no cows, nothing. Suddenly, as if out of thin air, a woman runs past at breakneck speed. Sarah glances back quizzically, a frown tugging at her mouth, then pulls into the wreckage of a small village. At this point, the tension in the film is electric, almost unbearable, like that moment when you're watching a too-scary movie—not the moment when the monster attacks but the one just before, when the story seems to drop out, leaving a quiet only violence can fill. In Harrison's Flowers, the quiet fills in with a roar, and in one stunning, heart-clutching scene Sarah almost loses her life, even as Chouraqui goes a long way toward saving his film.
A long way, but not far enough. What happens next is visceral, unrelenting, affecting and, as often, exasperating. Sarah joins up with a group of photojournalists, one of whom happens to be Kyle, who, along with another photographer (Brendan Gleeson), travels with Sarah to Vukovar, where Harrison may be hospitalized. It's all pretty nutty—enough, unfortunately, to take you out of the story every so often, mostly to imagine the compromises that found a film this graphic and bloody, set against a war in which thousands lost their lives, headed up by the star of Four Weddings and a Funeral. What's even nuttier, though, is how much of it does work. If you don't think too much about MacDowell's beauty, apparent even under smears of red, it's because she doesn't have to do much except look wild-eyed like everyone else. In Chouraqui's Vukovar, what matters are the dead and the nearly dead, along with Nicola Pecorini's urgent camera work. In a recent New York Timesarticle, correspondent Stephen Kinzer criticized Harrison's Flowers for including, among other improbabilities, photographers who shoot wars standing, rather than lying down. What he didn't observe was that by watching a war through its photojournalists instead of its soldiers, we see something that's become increasingly rare at the movies—a war not just of heroes and villains, but of ordinary people, both the journalists and those they photograph. Here, after all, is a movie that, at its best, makes you forget who its star is.
Harrison's Flowers was directed and produced by Elie Chouraqui; written by Chouraqui, Isabel Ellsen and Didier Le Pcheur; and stars Andie MacDowell and David Strathairn. Now playing countywide.