Judge Patrick Bromley reports on this biopic of a dangerous Irish journalist.
"Why would anyone want to kill Veronica Guerin?"
When a film's first two credits indicate that it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Pirates of the Caribbean) and directed by Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin, 8MM), that would typically be an appropriate time to reach for the Drano and Thumbtack cocktail. How is it, then, that Veronica Guerin manages to be tolerable?
Two words: Cate Blanchett.
Facts of the Case
Based on real-life events, Veronica Guerin tells the story of an Irish reporter (do I really need to say what her name is?) writing for The Sunday Independent. In 1994, Guerin—who had previously been reporting corporate corruption and church scandals—turned her attention to Ireland's increasing drug problem. Her investigations, however, brought her to the attention of Dublin's crime underworld; the deeper she dug, the more danger she found herself in.
Veronica Guerin can't decide what it wants to be. Part biopic, part crime story, part journalistic account—the film simply tries to wear too many hats to be entirely effective as any individual part of its sum.
In chronicling the two years leading up to Guerin's death (1994 to 1996), director Schumacher and screenwriters Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue streamline the events so relentlessly (to which they confess on their commentary track) that the film becomes nothing but a series of repetitive sequences: Veronica interviews an alleged criminal. She gets threatened. She interviews someone else. Someone shoots at her house. She doesn't give up. She gets beat up. She doesn't give up. She gets shot. She doesn't give up. And so on, all the way to the inevitable and tragic conclusion. As the story of a woman on a path towards self-destruction, the film works—but that's not the story that Schumacher is telling (despite the fact that on his commentary, he describes it as being about the "dance of death" between Guerin and drug lord John Gilligan).
Schumacher botches the violent climax of the film twice. First, he telegraphs Guerin's fate by unnecessarily bookending the film with the event—it starts and ends with the same act of violence. When that scene is reached at the film's end, Schumacher shifts the visual style to a highly stylized strobe effect, which removes the viewer from the reality of what is occurring and diminishes its impact. Had he allowed the sequence to unfold in the same naturalized style he had achieved throughout the film, its suddenness and brutality would have resonated, leaving it to echo through the film's (decidedly drawn-out) final passages.
The film is so caught up in its criminal plot line that it begins to overlook Veronica Guerin as a person, leaving its attempts to make her character accessible thin at best. We are told that she has a husband and a child, whose birthday party she forgets (because she's flawed, see?). She drives too fast, which we learn in the film's bookend sequences. We know she likes soccer (sorry—football), thanks to a sequence that utterly yanks us out of the film: the Colin Farrell cameo. Veronica bumps into the Farrell character on the street, watching a soccer game in a store window TV; they talk about soccer, then he hits on her. That's it. It seems that director Schumacher wants to remind us all that he discovered Farrell (Tigerland, Phone Booth), but the actor's presence here serves as nothing but a distraction. Rather than using Farrell's gruff intensity and casting him one as one of the thugs that threatens Veronica's life, Schumacher makes him just some regular guy on the street—leaving the audience thinking, "Hey! That's Colin Farrell! Did you see American Outlaws? Bloody fantastic, right?" His presence is supposed to remind us that Guerin is just a person, just like you and me, who enjoys sports and is attractive to Irish dreamboats. Efforts such as this don't benefit the film any. The heavy lifting is left entirely up to Cate Blanchett.
God bless Cate Blanchett. While definitely considered a "respected" actress in most circles, she just doesn't get the embarrassing amount of credit she deserves. From a bitch-goddess Queen in Elizabeth, to a Jersey housewife in Pushing Tin, to a southern psychic in Sam Raimi's The Gift, she has never given the same performance twice. Unlike, say, Meryl Streep, whose variety and versatility always seems to call attention to themselves, Blanchett simply disappears into the role—you'll never catch her acting. This may work to her disadvantage, as your average filmgoer may not even associate one performance with another. This lack of wide recognition, coupled with her character-actor-as-leading-lady approach to her performances, might account for her overall shortage of commercial work; I mean, c'mon—the Lord of the Rings movies? Like those will ever catch on.
Blanchett's work in Veronica Guerin carries the film. Looking alarmingly like Diane Sawyer, she supplies Guerin with all the necessary elements to make her simultaneously larger-than-life and down to earth, which is precisely the image the film seems to want to project. She's tough, stubborn, and determined, but also extremely charming and mildly flirtatious—qualities she is not afraid to exploit when getting an interview subject to open up to her. Blanchett totally humanizes the character, making us understand both why she was so respected and loved by her admirers, as well as mistrusted or disliked among her detractors. It's apparent that Blanchett has no interest in making Guerin into a saint (which Schumacher confirms on his commentary track).
The DVD is something of a mixed bag. The THX-certified, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer does a nice job bringing out the dark richness of Brendan Galvin's photography, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track has the appropriate balance of dialogue to some of the more jarring sound cues, lending an effective immediacy to things like shattering glass and gunshots. The extras, while fairly plentiful, deal less with the cinematic subject's history than with the production of the film itself. There is a brief conversation with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who should consider this film's treatment of violence (it's against it!) a penance for his squib-laden vomitorium/cartoon, Bad Boys II. Also on hand is Bruckheimer's photo diary, consisting of pictures taken during the film's production, coupled with dryly obvious narration by the producer. There are some good photographs in the presentation, but the feature generally smacks of a vanity inclusion (the animated signature at the end really drives that point home).
What's missing from these extra features is more factual information about the real-life Guerin. It's a shame, as the DVD format really lends itself to this kind of footage; having just seen the film, wouldn't it make sense to then provide material about the woman who inspired it? Sadly, only one such piece is present on the disc—video of a short speech Guerin delivered to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In just the brief glimpse we get of her, Guerin demonstrates what made her such a compelling personality in her homeland—she's humble, confident, well spoken, and self-deprecating. Immediately after watching her speech, you can access Schumacher and Company's cinematic re-creation of the event in the disc's sole deleted scene. While it provides a nifty side-by-side comparison of Hollywood's version of real life (we should all be so lucky as to have Hollywood lighting and production design in our day-to-day activities), the scene has little else to offer.
The disc features two commentary tracks—one from director Joel Schumacher, and another from writers Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue. Schumacher, who for a long time I considered to be a biblical sign of Armageddon (I can count on his good movies on less than one hand) seems to have burned out on making soulless, puerile films and now attempts to balance smaller, personal projects (Tigerland, Flawless) with the crap (Bad Company—and not the good one with Larry Fishburne). Veronica Guerin is the former, and doesn't resemble much of Schumacher's previous work; it's more like a slicker, glossier Neil Jordan film. Schumacher generally gives good commentary tracks, combining production details with insight into the finished film as it compares to his intentions. With Guerin, his commentary is as rewarding as it is frustrating, in that he provides a great deal of information about the real Veronica Guerin that one wishes would have been included in the film.
This contradiction is also heavily on display in the writers' commentary. Because both Donaghue and Doyle did a great deal of research on Guerin in writing the screenplay, they are able to discuss at length the historical background of the Guerin case, as well as the dramatic liberties they took in constructing the film. That this type of material can supplement the film is another testament to the advantages of DVD, in that its inclusion enhances the experience of the film. One has to wonder, though, whether the awareness of this fact has made filmmakers lazy—if they are readily omitting material with the knowledge that "it will wind up on the DVD." Had Doyle or Donaghue found a way to weave the personal accounts or history that they share in their commentary into the script itself, it may have improved the quality of the film—which, as it stands, lacks exactly these kinds of details. Instead, we wind up with an incomplete film that is greatly fleshed out in its DVD treatment. It's exciting that DVD has become such a vital part of the film experience, but it would be a shame to see the movies suffer in the process.
Also included are bonus trailers for The Magdalene Sisters, Hope Springs, and Calendar Girls. Like all current Touchstone releases, the trailers pop up automatically upon starting the disc, but can be bypassed fairly easily with the Chapter Skip button.
Veronica Guerin continues a much-improved filmmaking streak for director Schumacher, and provides a knockout showcase for Cate Blanchett, yet still feels altogether unsatisfying. The film, save for Blanchett's performance, does little to enrich Guerin's story—it lacks much artistry. You may walk away with a better understanding of who Guerin was (if you even knew at all) and what eventually became of her, but you could learn that from doing an online search. We should expect more from cinema.
The Court mandates that Joel Schumacher remain on big-budget probation, and that he continue to be banned from all things rubber and/or latex. Cate Blanchett is found Not Guilty of anything. Ever. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Audio Commentary by Director Joel Schumacher
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.