This epic production of “Joan of Arc,” ambitiously detailed, handsomely costumed and passionately performed, delivers the full wrath of teen angst in a classy and straightforward telling of the illiterate peasant girl who saw “visions” and heard “voices” that were her spiritual guides in helping to leading a nation into battle. Though the mini lags in parts, it is ultimately saved by an impressive performance in the lead by 16-year-old find Leelee Sobieski, who comes across with the feistiness and doe-eyed innocence of an adolescent Helen Hunt. Maybe it just feels good to see a youth who cares about something deeper than zits, dates and the new Sugar Ray CD, but Sobieski’s spunk makes this “Joan” seem better than it actually is. Ronald Parker and Michael Miller’s script is gloomy and somber to a fault, particularly during a sweeps in which CBS is trying to protect an ever-narrowing household ratings lead.
Not that Joan’s story should inspire lighthearted reverie, but it is so utterly joyless, and its chief protagonist so sanctimoniously self-involved, that without Sobieski’s verve, it would be difficult to summon the energy to stick with it to the end, particularly considering the payoff is having the heroine singed to death.
What “Joan of Arc” embodies at its core is teen defiance on a grand scale. Joan would be burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 at age 19, but not before uniting France with her spunk, valor and petulance at a time when the nation’s very survival was in question as the Hundred Years War raged.
Helmer Christian Duguay skillfully coaxes a focused and tightly-coiled performance out of the luminous Sobieski, as well as from Powers Boothe as Joan’s stern and embittered father Jacques. Duguay’s stylish imprint is all over the production, from the artsy super slo-mo in the battle scenes to tenderness of the characters’ face-to-face interaction.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the story’s doggedly traditional path, the two-nighter doesn’t feel artificially bloated. It follows Joan as an average, devoutly Catholic farm girl growing up in Southern France who is suddenly seized by her visions and voices (of Saints Catherine, Michael and Margaret) that tell her to go help the Dauphin Charles (nice work from Neil Patrick Harris) claim his rightful throne and unite France against its invading English enemy.
This is all cool with her mother Isabelle (Jacqueline Bisset) but not father Jacques, who is still miffed that Joan wasn’t born a boy. But he finally must relent in the midst of ceaseless attacks on Joan’s village by the marauding English. The independent teen winds up leading a siege on Orleans at Charles’ behest, adopts the mantle of the Maid of Lorraine and gets on with it.
Joan turns out to be one tough girl, surviving stabbings and internal politics to persevere. The tale plays out from the standpoint of Joan’s increasing devastation and determination, along with a parade of star cameos including Robert Loggia, Peter O’Toole, Peter Strauss, Maximilian Schell, Chad Willett, Olympia Dukakis and — in a deliriously showy deathbed scene — Shirley MacLaine as Madame de Beaurevoir.
The medieval period details of Michael Joy’s production design are truly exquisite, while John Hay’s costumes deftly recreate that Renaissance Pleasure Faire feeling. There is one embarrassing moment when a very young Joan is seen looking wistfully over a vista of the French countryside — and it’s clear she is instead staring at an oil painting. But that stuff happens.
Otherwise, tech credits are grand.