Review: Stunning 'Messenger' fails to deliver
November 11, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Milla Jovovich is a beautiful and talented woman who has been acting and modeling since she was a child. But this actress -- married to, but estranged from, director Luc Besson -- is not yet a strong enough presence to be the centerpiece of a film with the scope and breadth of "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc."
This visually breathtaking movie, shot on location in the Czech Republic and France, crumbles under her lack of star power and a laughable script by Besson and writer Andrew Birkin.
This is the familiar story of the peasant girl born in the French village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle in the early 15th century. At one period in the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the key to who would win was control of Orleans, strategically set some 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Paris on the banks of the Loire.
In 1422, both kings -- Henry V of England, Charles VI of France -- suddenly died. The English proclaimed King Henry VI, a boy, to be ruler of England and France. The French dauphin, or eldest prince (John Malkovich) had no intention of giving up his claim to the throne. But tradition said he had to be crowned at Reims, which was under English control.
At this critical moment, Joan appeared at the French court and declared she'd been sent as a messenger of God. According to the film's production notes, she said to the dauphin: "I bring you news from God, that our Lord will give you back your kingdom, bringing you to be crowned at Reims and driving out your enemies. In this I am God's messenger. Do set me bravely to work, and I will raise the siege of Orleans."
Two months later, that's what she did, inspiring an army to victory at Orleans. The next year, at age 18, she was captured and sold to her enemies. At 19, she was declared a witch and burned at the stake. In 1920, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
I hear voices, dude
Although this is an old story, the filmmakers have chosen to use modern dialogue that's utterly inane at best, and at times borders on criminal. In an effort to move things along -- between tight shots of Jovovich's anguished face and sweeping montages of battle scenes -- we hear Joan repeatedly mutter, "Sooner is better than later," like a 1960s self-help guru.
But this homage to teen-age "girl power" gets, like, totally out of control: A character off to the side is heard mumbling "Whatever," when discussing whether Joan is a legitimate messenger of God. "Whatever?" This is supposed to be France in the 1420s, not southern California circa 1999.
Jovovich's performance is stuck at one level: wide-eyed hysterical determination. The only thing about her that goes through any change in the course of this sweeping epic is the length and color of her hair. Toward the end of the film, when her hair is at its shortest, she's a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Malkovich simpers and sulks his way through every scene, but in all fairness he, too, is drowning in ludicrous dialogue. Academy Award-winner Faye Dunaway, as Charles VII's ambitious mother-in-law Yolande D'Aragon, manages to keep her head above water, just barely.
The only thespian to come out of this unscathed is another Academy Award-winner, Dustin Hoffman, who plays Joan's unyielding conscience as some type of hooded grand inquisitor. He manages to make his mumbo jumbo sound important and logical.
Worth a thousand words
Besson's last directorial effort was 1997's "The Fifth Element," which co-starred Jovovich with Bruce Willis. As in that film, Besson has achieved stunning visuals in "The Messenger." He dressed himself in period armor and took a hand-held camera into the heart of the action and the results are magnificent.
But his artistry behind the camera only makes his lack of story development all the more painful.
Besson is to cinema what Andrew Lloyd Webber is to live theater, all visual razzmatazz and little substance. His attention to detail -- staging, set design, costume, camera work, editing -- is first rate. But there's scant attention to character, resulting in a glaring absence of heart.
Oh well, whatever.
"The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" is rated R for strong graphic battles, a rape and some language. 141 minutes.
Director Besson explores new worlds with 'The Fifth Element'
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