Anyone keen to take a tourist’s sampler excursion to Third World trouble spots can take the trip “Beyond Borders.” An ill-fated romance between international aid workers spanning the decades and the continents, where good-looking do-gooders stride purposefully amid beautifully photographed hellholes, this is star-driven, high-minded claptrap that, fatally, can’t even rig a rooting interest in its central love story. Given the inescapable artificiality with which it confronts “reality,” this elaborate Paramount release is poised to provoke a collective yawn from the international public along the lines of the one that greeted the similarly topical “Tears of the Sun,” which generated $43 million in domestic B.O. and $26 million overseas.
Although shot on far-flung locations, undoubtedly researched to a fare-thee-well and unquestionably reflective of earnest intentions, this sort of picture is almost inevitably doomed by the Hollywood conventions to which its makers feel required to adhere. The films are admittedly very different in intent, but all it takes to recognize the shortcomings of “Beyond Borders” is a look at Michael Winterbottom’s Berlin prize winner “In This World,” which vividly and credibly brings to the bigscreen a sense of conditions among the world’s most desperate citizens.
Told in melancholy flashback to the strains of Schumann’s “Traumerei,” first-time scenarist Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s original yarn kicks off at a 1984 London international aid benefit crashed by maverick medic Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), who chides and embarrasses the fancy-pants crowd about their alleged hypocrisy and presents them with a thin African boy. Despite the fact that Nick’s anarchic outburst results in his separation from the boy and the latter’s frozen death near Heathrow, Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie), the American wife and daughter-in-law of more sedate relief fund-raisers herself, is somehow taken with Nick’s passion on behalf of his thousands of Godforsaken Africans and ditches her art gallery job to lend a hand.
While the sight of the rangy Jolie in spotless white dress and hat making her way through the Ethiopian desert isn’t meant to conjure up memories of Marlene Dietrich traipsing across the sand dunes in “Morocco,” it does so nevertheless. Obviously naive and out of her element, Sarah saves a skeletal child from a vulture and argues with the hardheaded Nick to keep the child and his wounded mother alive. Trying to keep his overcrowded relief camp going with meager funds and a handful of associates, including cuddly American trust fund baby Elliott (Noah Emmerich) and can-do Aussie Joss (Jamie Bartlett), Nick dismissively gives Sarah a few lessons in suffering and survival before she returns to London.
At the same time, however, Nick reveals that his abusive side is not reserved for the casually concerned; indeed, it may be his only side, as he lambastes an African official who controls his purse strings, forcing him into the undesirable arms of a shadowy, possibly CIA-affiliated figure named Steiger (Yorick Van Wageningen), who has made a standing offer of support for Nick in exchange for certain favors. At this early stage, Nick has two strikes against him from an audience point of view: He’s both fatally careless and needlessly rude.
But five years and a son later, Sarah, who now works for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), still can’t wash that man out of her hair. Prompted by a visit to London by Elliott and given moral and dramatic clearance by an atrocious scene in which she all but catches her jobless husband, Henry (Linus Roache), in the sack with a woman, Sarah abandons her family to join Nick in Cambodia, where he’s trying to provide inoculations during a measles outbreak near the Thai border.
After narrowly surviving during the film’s one intense scene, in which an incensed Khmer Rouge unit barges into Nick’s medical pavilion and provokes a bloodbath, film finally settles down to some human and humane talk between Sarah and Nick, who admits to guilt over some of the big mistakes he’s made. They also finally get it on in a single sequence that, at least for an R-rated film, is remarkably reticent and lacking in the heat that might have validated a love story that bridges more than 10 years.
By 1995, Sarah has worked her way further up the international aid ladder. But when she learns that Nick is now in Chechnya, she leaves her family, which now includes two children, for the frigid battleground where Nick has apparently been kidnapped. Pulling strings and paying bribes, Sarah is finally led to her soulmate, whereupon they must attempt a treacherous escape through the snow that brings their union to a surprising but hardly illuminating end.
While focusing on global hot spots, Tredwell-Owen’s script steers very far from the political dynamics that caused the problems in the first place and that inform the barriers to solving them. Therefore, all the film’s characters, who are in the thick of the conflicts between assorted regimes, rebels, the U.N., independent organizations and others, are forbidden from even mentioning the geopolitical specifics that would be on the tips of their tongues at all times in real life.
Furthermore, Nick lives inside such a tough shell that it would have behooved the film, and Sarah, to eventually draw him out in the service of making him, if not a likable or particularly accessible character, then at least a complex and comprehensible one. A little background about what got him into his line of work and what made him such a hard case would have gone a long way, just as providing some shadings to Sarah’s view of effective aid work would have done.
Jolie looks every inch the movie star at all times, even after Nick has essentially made fun of Sarah for looking like one. Never is there any exploration of Sarah’s pain, anguish or anxiety over the impossible split between her devotion to Nick and his cause and her commitment to home and children. While strongly conveying Nick’s extreme personality, his dedication and frustration, Owen seems to be fighting the big-canvas invitation to movie stardom by always remaining a bit out of reach emotionally. Supporting players, including Teri Polo as Sarah’s TV newscaster sister, Roache as Sarah’s wimpy husband, and Emmerich as the perennially optimistic relief cheerleader, do the job in one-note roles.
Overproduced if anything, pic benefits from Phil Meheux’s sweeping widescreen coverage of evocative location work done in Namibia, Thailand and Canada, supplemented by fine production design from Wolf Kroeger and a large art department staff. Score is more subdued and varied than is often the case from James Horner.