2002, R, 122 min. Directed by Elie Chouraqui. Starring Andie MacDowell, David Strathairn, Brendan Gleeson, Adrien Brody, Elian Koteas, Alun Armstrong, Scott Anton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 15, 2002
There have been so few films done on the subject of the last decade's conflicts in the Balkans that you'd think no one cared. Americans have always been averse to films involving unpronounceable place-names in faraway lands that we don't depend on for crude oil, so Hollywood's disinterest in the situation is somewhat understandable, profit-driven as it is. (And just in case you're wondering, I'd barely count Behind Enemy Lines as a Croatian civil war film -- it's The Chase minus Charlie Sheen and with more firepower.) Foreign films on the subject, though, have been almost as rare -- the recent bitter comedy No Man's Land by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic and Michael Winterbottom's UK/U.S. co-production Welcome to Sarajevo being two notable exceptions. You'd think with a powder keg like that in their backyard European filmmakers would have been all over the conflict filmwise, but nothing doing. There's something intrinsically more horrifying about this particular war, with its endless procession of rapes, butchered children, and grim malapropisms like “ethnic cleansing,” that renders it distinctly unpalatable to even the most daring of filmmakers. So now there's Harrison's Flowers, in which Andie MacDowell plays Sarah, the loving wife of David Strathairn's Newsweek combat photographer Harrison. They have kids, a beautiful house in what looks like the Hamptons, and Harrison's beloved greenhouse and Pulitzer to keep them company. But when the magazine calls for “one last job,” the tightly wound Harrison answers, and is almost immediately lost and feared dead somewhere near Vukovar, Yugoslavia. French director Chouraqui has set the film in the waning years of the war, just before the ceasefire took place and the U.N. moved in full time; the Yugoslavia we see is chaos incarnate, with roving gangs of thuggish Serb militiamen and battle-blasted corpses all around, and with everything overlaid with a smoky, gray pall. That's what Sarah sees, too, actually. Convinced in her heart that her husband is not dead, she flies to Yugoslavia and singlehandedly begins to search for him. Once there, she runs afoul of a cluster of drunken, feral Serbs, but just as quickly runs into freelance photog Kyle (Brody), a petulant East Coast rival of her husband's, who despite past differences helps her out and generally acts as the film's moral center. (That this indie-hipster shuttermonkey should embody the film's beating heart is immensely satisfying -- prone to black leather, blow, and impassioned, idealistic ranting, he's as explosive and chaotic as the blasted landscape around him, the shiny, slippery flipside to the war's dark underbelly.) From here on out Harrison's Flowers concerns itself with Sarah's search, and leaves the true nature of the Balkans behind. This could be anywhere, really, but the mediocrity on hand is nearly obliterated by Brody's masterstroke and -- at times -- MacDowell herself, who gives give a solid, anguished performance that eclipses nearly everything else she's ever done (and yes, I know that's not much, but still, she's good here). Chouraqui's direction is loose and easy, and the film's feel is greasy; you get the feeling everyone and everything is covered in a thin patina of tank-tread grease and crunchy black grit, which feels right (kudos to Giantito Burchiellaro's production design for that). Not surprisingly, Harrison's Flowers doesn't say much of anything at all about the Balkan conflict (other than it was a godawful mess and lots of innocent people died); it's more concerned with MacDowell's shattered face and Brody's passionate, paranoid whinny, which, come to think of it, is just good enough.