Sony // 1999 // 158 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 27th, 2000
I'm just the messenger.
This latest release from Columbia is a sweeping epic style of film, accurate in it's history and telling a compelling story, with beautiful cinematography and wondrous costuming. It is a very fine disc as well, with a fine anamorphic transfer and terrific soundtrack. It even has a good collection of extras. Unfortunately some poor directorial and casting choices make this not the film that might have been.
I was thrilled when I heard I was getting this disc for review. Medieval history has always been a hobby of mine. When I was in college I took so many history courses, including every course covering the middle ages, that if I had taken a few more courses I could have added a degree in history. I spent quite a few years of my life associated with the Society of Creative Anachronism, where I learned how to fight in armor with broadswords and rapiers, calligraphy, accurate costuming, and how to perform music from the period. The SCA as it is called is a historical re-creation group for those who do not know. So you would expect me to be a fan of movies set in this period of European history, and I am. I will say that the history depicted in this film, a story most people know at least something about, was highly accurate. So I take no pleasure in speaking anything against this film. Here I will talk about what was done right though, and what I enjoyed.
Lets talk first of the story of Joan of Arc, as the film tells it. Her name was actually Jeanne, was born in 1412, and started having visions from a young age. The movie first introduces her in 1420, when an English raiding party attacks Jeanne's village and kills her sister, in a rape scene involving necrophilia too shocking for many to bear. Already hearing voices that she believes to be of divine inspiration, she is sent off to live with an aunt and uncle while her parents attempt to rebuild their home. When next we meet Jeanne, she is 17 years old and is seeking an audience with the Dauphin, the uncrowned Charles VII (John Malkovich Being John Malkovich, Man in the Iron Mask, Con Air). Charles is so impressed by Jeanne that he believes her claim that God has chosen her to "save France from Her enemies and bring Her back into the hand of God." He gives her an army and allows her to attack the English holding siege at Orléans, where she wins a great victory. She becomes an immediate French hero, and is at Charles VII's side when he is crowned in July of 1429. A year later, after a failed attempt to re-take Paris, Jeanne is captured by England's Burgundian allies outside the walls of Compiègne. She is transported to Rouen, where she is imprisoned and tortured before being brought before an ecclesiastical tribunal. The result of her trial for heresy and witchcraft is a guilty verdict. The penalty is to be burned at the stake.
The film goes into a little more depth than this overview of the official version of the history. For example, it is made clear that after gaining the crown that Charles VII was worried about the rising influence of Jeanne, and the reason she did not take Paris, was captured, and was ransomed to the British rather than the French was because of withholding of vital troops and intentionally letting her fall into the enemy's hands. Note that I wrote the "official" version of history; as current findings have great downplayed her role in lifting the siege at Orléans, if indeed there was a siege to lift. However, I have no interest, and I'm sure the film has none in downplaying such an icon of French history.
This film has impeccable production design, stunning cinematography by Thierry Arbogast, and a rousing score by Eric Serra. The detailed costuming and sets showed a high degree of authenticity while keeping a grand beauty and high production values. The film looks great (as one would expect from Luc Besson, the director of La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element).
The disc looks great too. No distracting grain or other film defects, deep, rich colors and shadow detail is excellent. While the image is a little soft, I think that is the intent of the film rather than any defect in the overall stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The soundtrack was terrific too; the Dolby Digital EX encoded 5.1 track had great frequency response right down into the range your subwoofer will love. Excellent imaging and detailed channel separation, along with the aforementioned stirring score gives this disc a memorable sound. Columbia has done their usual excellent job here. A nice collection of special features also adds to the value of the disc. A 22-minute feature "The Messenger: 'The Search For the Real Joan of Arc' HBO First Look" goes into the incredible amount of research that gave the film its authenticity. I've studied the period and still saw some wonderful shots of illuminated manuscripts and paintings I'd never seen before. Actual documents from the time, along with the real signature of Jeanne make this a very memorable feature. An isolated musical score audio track, talent files, a leaflet of production notes, and five trailers round out the extras. There is a teaser and trailer for The Messenger, and trailers for Run Lola Run, Orlando, and The Professional.
Though some of the performances were very good, particularly from among the supporting cast, I'm lumping them here. Milla Jovovich, then wife of the director and who has starred in his other pictures, was obviously planned to play Jeanne from the start. I'll give her that her performance was earnest and intense, and she made quite the warrior babe. I know she worked hard on getting the research and the role down. Her problem was two-fold: first off I didn't like the choices that Besson made for Jeanne and she simply didn't have the depth for the intricate emotions and battling ideals. She shone when she was in battle, and did not when she was away from the fray. Whether it was her own style or Besson's choices, she had a twitchy, bug-eyed style that simply didn't work for me.
Faye Dunaway's performance was underplayed and hampered by a poor choice of makeup and hair. While the very high forehead style was authentic, I couldn't get away from seeing her as the faceplate from Robocop. She was so ugly and that connection so firm I simply couldn't get into her character.
John Malkovich's performance was better; he had a great range as the effete but torn ruler. Between his desire to do the right thing and the advice he was getting to betray Jeanne, while being worried about her influence and suffering from the decadent and irresponsible attitudes of the character, Malkovich managed to make all of it part of the package. Dustin Hoffman's performance in a small role as Jeanne's conscience (or hallucination as you may choose) was the best one in the picture; unfortunately it was a role I wish had never been cast at all.
Several supporting roles were great, but the time given to them was insufficient to really care about their characters. These were the men who were fighting with Jeanne on her crusade to save France. The battle sequences are frenetic. Besson makes frequent use of quick cuts to emphasize the chaos of war (and to limit the amount of gore), but this style becomes tiresome after a while, especially when so few recognizable characters are in harm's way. Most of the time, we're watching faceless combatants hack at each other. The armor and weapons, sheer size of the armies, authentic settings, and obvious budget being spent all could have made these scenes, and the film as a whole, as memorable and epic as Braveheart. Luc Besson's directorial choices instead made them often forgettable and routine.
While I'm very disappointed in the battle scenes (which were in fact still among the better stuff), I'm even more so about the choices made for Jeanne's character. Besson decided to take a different tack on the role, by trying to make it ambiguous whether Jeanne was truly inspired by God or simply having delusions. Ultimately he emphasized the view that Jeanne was simply a paranoid schizophrenic rather than leaving the question open. Hoffman's whole role, the overly surreal representations of her visions, and Jeanne's erratic mannerisms and bug-eyed look all contributed to make her seem insane. The story, where you know ahead of time the heroine is going to be burned at the stake, was sad enough without making you think she simply needed a good dose of Thorazine and the story would never have happened. This movie could have been as great or even better than Braveheart, but instead it was merely a pale shadow of it. This is the international version of the film, but I've not been able to determine how much extra footage was added or why the two versions were made. At 158 minutes it seemed overly long in some ways, while other areas didn't get the attention it deserved. A commentary track telling why and where footage was added would have been helpful, but ultimately I feel the director was at fault throughout in making this film much worse than it needed to be.
I'm saddened by what this film could have been. A different take on Jeanne, some different directorial choices and a different lead could have made this a true epic people would be talking about 20 years later. Instead it is an adequate film masquerading as an epic. Columbia has done a fine job with the DVD, and if you like the film then by all means buy the disc. Otherwise I have to recommend it as a rental.
Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich are split up now, and perhaps that is for the best. I'd rather not have them working together again. I have to sentence the film to obscurity rather than award it the millions of dollars it could have taken in with just a few differences. Columbia is acquitted for releasing another fine transfer, soundtrack, and collection of extras.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Isolated Musical Score
* Talent Files
* Production Notes
* Society of Creative Anachronism