To the people who can’t ever get enough news coverage and need to see every worldwide disaster turned inside out onto their TV screens and magazine pages, Harrison’s Flowers is a wake-up call. A price is paid for those images, in emulsion, videotape and sometimes blood, and that price is the backbone of Elie Chouraqui’s latest directorial endeavor. Derived from photojournalist Isabel Ellsen’s book, Le Diable a l’Avantage, an autobiographical account of her experiences during the Croatian civil war, the film bores a hole into a dangerous occupation often taken for granted.
Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist ready for retirement, but takes on one last assignment in a little civil war in Yugoslavia. When news of his death reaches his wife, Sarah (Andie MacDowell), she refuses to believe it, and travels into the mouth of hellfire to find him. In the beginning, unnecessary melodrama centers around MacDowell and Strathairn, whose joint acting technique is best described as cardboardesque. But once it gets to the war, it’s a different movie altogether — a brutal beast that beats down everything in its path with bombs, bullets and mass-rape as means of destruction. Sarah luckily and unwittingly hooks up with a media team, and soon after, because of her intense, unfaltering determination, the hardened photojournalists are lured into her quest as she transmogrifies from an insane suburban wife into a representation of impenetrable love in the midst of unbridled hate.
Although perfect for light-stepping romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, MacDowell is way out of her league here. Yet in spite of her inadequate emotional range, the savage and barbaric war imagery unravels nerves you didn’t even know you had.
The film’s weaknesses shouldn’t rest completely on MacDowell’s shoulders. A script that expects us to buy a 1940s-style love story in the middle of 20th century war realism is about as absurd as plopping a L’Oreal model in the middle of the Croatian civil war and expecting her to cut it without her makeup bag. When you get right down to it, Harrison’s Flowers is a paradox with a pretty face, analogous to the gap between its title and the gruesome subject matter it contains.
Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].