If it doesn’t do much else, this austere biopic of the 19th century Belgian priest who worked wonders in a leper colony near Hawaii at least confirms helmer Paul Cox as a maverick unafraid to pursue uncommercial projects. Cox, working from a script by Oscar winner John Briley (“Gandhi”) underplays the large-scale aspects of the tale, thereby placing the onus on the name cast and top-notch technical crew to support the unvarnished, sometimes uneven storyline. The pic has some pleasures to offer patient viewers and Cox aficionados, but fails to add up to the sum of its parts, with little to entice mainstream viewers. The English-language movie bowed March 17 in Belgium, taking just $ 200,000 in its first two weeks in Brussels and drawing little enthusiasm from local crix. Offshore prospects look poor.
After bombing in the territory most likely to take the tale to heart (Damien was canonized by the pope in Belgium in 1995), Cox’s pic looks set to confirm the helmer’s statement in a 1997 documentary that “it’s political to make a film about reality — reality doesn’t sell.” For Cox, reality in this film takes the shape of the harsh and unforgiving environment in which Father Damien does his heroic work.
Pic begins in Hawaii in 1872, where Damien (David Wenham), a young missionary Catholic priest, volunteers to work for three months in a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The harsh terrain, marked by vaulting cliffs and wild sea, is transformed into a moody setting, full of foreboding, by longtime Cox lenser Nino Martinetti. The leper colony’s inhabitants are a lamentable bunch, rounded up relentlessly like criminals on Hawaii and banished to a barren corner of Molokai that’s isolated from the rest of the island by the mountain Pali.
Damien soon ignores the advice of his flawed but humane bishop (a reliable Leo McKern) not to touch anyone and devotes himself zealously to transforming the miserable geography of the colony. Trees are planted to act as windbreaks against the harsh Pacific winds, and huts are built to house the most sick, while Damien works tirelessly to restore dignity to these outcasts, discouraging heavy drinking and loose sexual behavior.
Returning briefly to Honolulu for confession, Damien is welcomed by reporters and Hawaiian princess Liliukalani (young Australian singer Kate Ceberano, briefly exotic), who have begun to take notice of his repeated calls for nuns, medicines and supplies. Cox makes much of the cynicism and indifference of the political and religious elite, who are uneasy about the attention Damien is drawing to a problem they would rather forget. When Damien leaves Honolulu, he is told he can never return.
Rest of pic dwells with Damien’s further trials and tribulations — resisting (with some difficulty) the attentions of an attractive young Hawaiian woman in the colony, contracting leprosy himself and working to the end to bring improvements to the pain-filled lives of the colony’s inhabitants. With a sober take on a heroic life, scripter Briley and helmer Cox take a refreshing approach , avoiding the temptation to glamorize his achievements and courage, even in his death.
Wenham is convincing as the down-to-earth, obstinate and zealous Damien, whose humor and underlying sexuality make him distinctly human, as is Sam Neill as Gibson, the self-serving, manipulative prime minister of the archipelago.
But other star turns work less well, including a hammy Peter O’Toole as a godless, former medical assistant in the advanced stages of leprosy. As the island’s outgoing administrator, Kris Kristofferson is solid and low-key; Derek Jacobi’s worldly cleric is in for only a few scenes; as a naive New York nun dissuaded until the last moment from visiting Molokai, Alice Krige is briefly luminous; and Brit thesp Tom Wilkinson is sturdy as an open-minded priest who arrives in the latter stages to help continue Damien’s work.
The overall flat approach to the storytelling, sometimes clumsy dialogue and a top-notch cast that doesn’t jell make this a disappointing contribution to Cox’s often impressive but patchy body of work.