Harrison’s Flowers: War Melodrama Starring Andie MacDowell

A stronger actress would have given Harrison’s Flowers, the war melodrama directed by Frenchman Eli Chouraqui, a sharper dramatic focus than it gets in the hands of Andie MacDowell, an appealing actress who’s more adept in light romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Crush) than in serious pictures.

Recalling some of Costa-Gavras’s femme-oriented political melodramas (Hanna K. with Jill Clayburgh, Betrayed with Debra Winger, The Music Box with Jessica Lange), albeit with a very different message, the story centers on the desperate efforts of a young woman to find her missing husband (well-played by David Straithairn), an idealistic photojournalist who gets involved in the Serbian-Croatian war circa 1991. Long on the shelves picture, which finally received its premiere at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, is bound for US theatrical release on March 15.

Distributor Universal Focus may slightly benefit from its film’s timely issue–civilians and professionals conduct in crisis war situations–and from the tragic coincidence of the most recent kidnapping and murder of Wall Street journalist David Pearl, but mostly the picture will be seen by patrons of the arthouse circuit.

In what’s a truly rare positive portrayal of American marriage on the big-screen, the Harrisons function in an ideal unit as spouses, parents, and even colleagues in Newsweek magazine. Under pressures from his wife to devote more time to his family, the workaholic Harrison makes a request from his editor, Samuel Bruebeckboss (Armstrong), to cease covering the war and other issues that take him overseas. It’s understood that his next assignment, covering the Balkans war, would be his last risky one. As fate would have it, Harrison is declared dead, though there’s no body to substantiate the evidence.

Early one, the film captures the competitive milieu of photojournalism, the petty and not so petty rivalry among peers in terms of the various subjects they cover, the relative dangers in such tasks, and the kinds of photos produced (cushy and soft versus gutsy and disturbing). A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Harrison is envied and even despised by some of his younger colleagues.

The narrative is strategically set in the beginning of the conflict, before the Western world and the U.S. became aware of the atrocities conducted in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” Harrison is presumed to be dead by his associates and down-to-earth editor in a country that’s far from home, geographically, politically, and culturally. However, hell-bent in her pursuit to locate her husband, it’s Sarah who leaves all the others in a state of disbelief. Instead of persuading her to turn back, she convinces Harrison’s colleagues to forge ahead.

Once in War-torn Yugoslavia, after sarah crosses the border from Austria, the saga turns into an adventure about a naive American abroad, totally outside of her element. Sarah is helped by Kyle (Brody), her husband’s cynical and critical peer, and his colleague Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson, who excelled in John Boorman’s The General). For a while, the film depicts the horror that the trio experiences from Sarah’s point-of-view. Brutally treated, and nearly raped, Sarah survives due to a series of coincidences, a product of the messy, nasty war. Kyle, who saves Stevenson from a sniper’s bullet, soon becomes Sarah’s most reliable support.

All three learn lessons and new realities, finding new perspectives in the midst of an horrendous civil war, where brother battles against brother. Armed solely with a camera, they are forced to muster a courage they never knew they had before. This is particularly the case of sarah, immersing herself into a world she has never fathomed, and embarks on a perilous journey to find Harrison–dead or alive–based on slight evidence of news footage she had tape-recorded from TV, but mostly inner, irrational belief that Harrison is wounded.

The film tries but only partially succeeds in conveying visceral journalistic immediacy with quasi-documentary techniques. The narrative, credited to director Chouraqui and three other scribes, seems to have been tempered with by various hands, resulting in a vastly uneven picture, vacillating between credible sequences to some preposterous ones. Crucial characters, such as Harrison’s buddy, Yeager (Koteas), appear almost out of nowhere. And what is at first a narrowly focused drama of a woman, whose former stable and docile life gradually becomes unreal and even surreal, suddenly changes into a broader and diffuse chronicle, accompanied by a male voice-over narration. Perhaps because it was written by Frenchmen, the text often sounds awkward and stilted in English. Hence, Kyle tells Yeager at a crucial moment, “We better pray that someday we find somebody that loves us the way she loves him.”

Sarah is meant to epitomize a single-minded woman, whose passionate love for–and crazed devotion to–her husband is the only constant and rational thing in an otherwise insane, ever-changing world. She is meant to be an ordinary woman, forced to do extraordinary things in crisis situations, evoking a previously untapped courage that surprises everyone, most of all herself.

Which brings us to the film’s major problem: MacDowell’s performance. The saving grace of MacDowell as an actress has always been her tendency not underact, hence not irritating the audience even when she’s inadequately cast. But for this picture to be effective, it calls for a far more forceful presence, such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening, Cate Blanchett. Unfortunately, lacking an expressive face, the few close-ups granted MacDowell don’t do much to illuminate Sarah’s inner conflicts and her gaining of a more mature, realistic, and alert political consciousness.

Harrison’s Flowers offers some compensations and rewards. The male cast, particularly the volatile and energetic Brody, is compelling and strong. It’s to the credit of lenser Nicola Pecorini and designer Giantito Burchiellaro that the combat zone evokes an authentic look, since most of movie was shot in the Czech Republic, outside Prague.