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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In The Land of Blood and Honey

Back to last week's films, a quick look at the directorial and screenwriting debut of Angelina Jolie.

I feel a bit odd that I have to defend a celebrity/ star/ personality as big as Angelina Jolie and yet, for all of her fame, money and status, she is rather overlooked as an actual talent. I don't know if it's the whole "Brangelina" thing, her weird behaviour when she was younger, her, shall we say, interest in the "third world" or that business about Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for her, but she is seldom given her due. When she tries, she can be a truly excellent actress, as masterful turns in Changeling and A Mighty Heart clearly show. When she doesn't try, she can occasionally be a bit trying, but mostly her definite screen presence still shines through.

Still, for all that I mostly really like her in front of the cameras, there was a definite feeling that even my patience would be tried as I walked into In The Land of Blood and Honey. Not only had she never directed a feature film before or written an actual filmed screenplay, she chose as her subject a truly horrific real-life atrocity that occurred a world away from her cushy life in Hollywood. In The Land of Blood and Honey looked to be nothing more than a self-indulgent vanity project (her W.E, basically) by an actor forcing her way behind the directors chair about a subject on which she can't possibly have any real authority.

Here's the thing, though: while it is true that the film is ultimately a failure, it is a genuinely honourable failure by a filmmaker who clearly has it in her to make better things in the future. It's no vanity project and it certainly isn't self-indulgent, it's simply typical of many a first film: Jolie tries to bite off far more than she can chew, resulting in a film that is clearly honourable in its intentions and genuinely well directed but is ultimately a mess in its storytelling.

In The Land of Blood and Honey is a film that tries to tackle the deadly serious topic of the war in the Balkans during the 1990s that effectively boiled down to the Russian serf  population doing everything they could to wipe out the Muslim population with whom they shared their country. That's right, for her debut feature, Ms Jolie decided to focus on one of the most notorious examples of ethnic cleansing in modern history and, though she takes a very sincere swing at so weighty a subject by focusing on a Romeo and Juliet-like "romance" between a Muslim woman and a commanding officer as a way of personalizing such unimaginably awful real events.     

It's a nice try but it often comes across as rather trivial, not to say unbelievable, and she doesn't have the experience as a writer or as a director to maintain either the lightness of touch or the focused storytelling that such a story clearly requires. She directs her actors well, getting very good performances from unknown (to me at least) actors and she clearly has a sensitivity to the precarious nature of the story she is telling, even if she can't ever get away from the fact that it's impossible to make us sympathize with a group of people who systematically and mercilessly hunted down and killed innocent men, women and children whose only crime was being born Muslim. 

It's too long, too heavy handed, too melodramatic and too lacking in nuance to ever be considered anything close to a success, but credit has to be given to Angelina Jolie for even attempting to explore so difficult a subject matter and even more credit has to be given to the fact that she clearly has a director's eye. This is not the film to convince anyone that she has successfully made the jump from acting to writing/ directing but it shows more than enough promise to convince me at least that she's only a film or two away from actually pulling it off. Here's hoping that she gets the chance.


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