Oh, 'There Be Dragons'; But Slaying 'Em Is a Drab Affair

Directed by: Roland Joffé, Runtime: 122 minutes
Grade: D+

The bits and pieces of a proper Roland Joffé film lay scattered in the rubble of his recent historical war drama, There Be Dragons: an examination of faith during wartime, a conflicted anti-hero confronting an unrespectable past (and present), and the struggles of morality and recompense that exist between them. The same Joffé who knocked The Killing Fields and The Mission out of the ballpark might've created something singular, or even moving out of his Spanish Civil War epic, which focused on the need for both realist soldiers and idealist faith-believers in trying times. But what's created here comes closer in quality to the director's stodgy adaptation of The Scarlet Letter than his outstanding namesakes of inner turmoil and war-torn complications; There Be Dragons spins its thematic tires by mixing overplayed, woodenly-acted theatrics within a dull tonal foundation, and though a poignant point's in there, somewhere, it's lost in a strewn, drab depiction of war and moral complexity.

Before it goes back to the mid-'30s to focus on the war, Joffé's film starts in the current era. A Spanish journalist named Robert (Dougray Scott, Perfect Creature) researches his dying father, Manolo, after discovering he had ties -- uneasy ones -- with Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox, Stardust), a candidate for sainthood, in his youth. As Robert digs deeper to figure it out, without much assistance from his estranged father, the film transports to the era and begins fleshing out their history, from their childhood and their scuffles in a Catholic monastery to the point when Manolo (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) splinters off and takes up arms in the war. From there, There Be Dragons tells two distinct stories: Manolo's, which chronicles a "practical" outlook on life and the importance of war, his infatuation with a beautiful revolutionary, Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), and his internal struggles with forgiveness and purpose; and Josemaría's, which illustrates the dangers of being a priest during that time.

I'm inclined to believe that the key difference between Roland Joffé's '80s canon and There Be Dragons primarily traces back to the person holding the pen: in this case, Joffé attempts to wear both hats as director and writer, and it's clear that he's much more adept at bringing others' work to life. The ideas of slaying inner dragons and choosing between practicality and higher-being faith during wartime sound rousing, and the Spanish Civil War offers a great time-period to do so, but Joffé's writing, in particular his dialogue, gravitates towards little more than loutish flip-flopping between cliché inspirational murmuring and bleak sulking to justify it. He's so wrapped up in creating that ersatz moral arena that he neglects to fully weave an authentic fabric for Josemaría and Manolo, allowing our observations of a priest who chooses the cloth and a pragmatist who chooses against it to be enough character-sketching to support the film's attempts at emotional clarity.

Portraying Manolo marks a poignant turning-of-the-tide in Wes Bentley's career, in that it's his first stab at a truly substantial role after completely sobering up from his post-stardom bender, sparked by his success with American Beauty (candid, eye-opener interviews with Bentley can be found at the NYTimes and at Movieline). And he does bring that life experience to There Be Dragons by lending much-needed validity to his dark, embroiled gazes and weighted stoicism, shaping a man who's chosen the practicality of destructive warfare over organized religion as his way of changing the world. He's clearly the standout here among performances that border on the one-dimensional and sporadically dull; Charlie Cox brings the jovial charm he exudes in Stardust to Escrivá, while Olga Kurylenko musters the wide-eyed romanticism of a spellbound revolutionary with eyes for a charismatic leader (played with enough gusto by Rodrigo Santoro). But that's all there is to the characters, really: the pretty agenda-driven woman who doesn't desire Manolo, the revolutionary leader who's double the man of Manolo, and the childhood chum-turned-priest who made the smarter decision than Manolo did at the same crossroads.

All of that might be filed under the category of subjective observations though, yet they play second fiddle to the more disconcerting flaw in There Be Dragons: Joffé's direction simply isn't as engaging or effervescent enough to achieve the lofty importance of its aims, which makes the film a dry historical chore as it attempts repeated evocative punches -- and not nearly enough of 'em land. Gabriel Beristain's sober photography keeps a clear eye on the well-assembled design of the Spanish Civil War, sure, with sumptuously-lit Catholic seminaries, rustic apartments, and gravelly Spanish battlegrounds, but the production polish and the remnants of its faith- and redemption-based motives merely dress up Joffé's lacking execution. And once everything in Manolo's world converges, tying into his son Robert's own discord, even the flutters of thematic fire that Joffé sparked have all but burned out. Internal dragons are slain here, but the process of watching it happen isn't a stimulating one.

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AdamMoody said...

Fantastic review! I have seen and loved The Killing Fields, and I own The Mission, but it is disheartening to hear the director Joffe's career has taken.

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