Head in the Clouds
2004, R, 133 min. Directed by John Duigan. Starring Charlize Theron, Penélope Cruz, Stuart Townsend, Thomas Kretschmann.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 15, 2004
Head in the Clouds, by writer-director John Duigan (Flirting, The Journey of August King), strives to address the big issues of war, passion, and conscience, but winds up with only attractive window dressing and abstractions that never manage to pass for reality. Set in Europe during the Thirties and early Forties, the film recounts the decade-long love affair between bohemian heiress Gilda (Theron) and Cambridge University student and anti-fascist Guy (Townsend). Other parties to their little circle of love are the stunning Spanish refugee Mia (Cruz), who shares a flat with them in Paris, and the Nazi major (Kretschmann), who keeps company with Gilda during the war years. The film does a decent job of conveying the explosive passions felt by these characters, but then repeatedly undercuts the mood by having them later restate the obvious. It’s the kind of movie in which characters stop in their tracks while luscious music swells, prolonging things that are already blatantly evident, as though the filmmaker doesn’t trust viewers to understand what they see and hear without reiterating it constantly. Townsend is excellent as the central character who has to develop from infatuated college student to besotted post-grad, and then driven anti-fascist who leaves his life of Parisian dilletantism with Gilda to join the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War and later the British military in World War II. Cruz is dazzling as the physically and psychically damaged Spaniard who escaped Spain to study nursing in Paris and eventually return to her homeland – but not before engaging in her own love affair with Gilda. Oscar-winner Theron, however, seems miscast in this project. Her Gilda never achieves the comfortable naturalism that would have made this character believable. Duigan’s cinematic touchstones are clear: there are reverberations of Jules and Jim, Women in Love, The Conformist, and more in Head in the Clouds’ situations and imagery (although cinematographer Paul Sarossy’s camerawork is very evocative of Europe between the wars). Duigan has the makings of a good yarn, but instead of trusting the story and his characters, he becomes fatally bogged down in trying to make statements.