After a long career of making generally lightweight, mostly unexceptional French-language fare, director Elie Chouraqui delivers a hard-hitting narrative depiction of the Bosnian conflict and of the work of photo-reporters in a war zone. Despite a lackluster cable-movie frame set in the U.S., “Harrison’s Flowers” nonetheless provides powerful drama thanks to its trenchant core story and harrowing re-creation of the brutal chaos of war. A name cast led by Andie MacDowell could help land theatrical exposure, with stronger prospects down the track on video.
While it shares themes with other dramas about war-zone reporters such as “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “Under Fire,” the film most directly recalls Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” which examined the fighting in former Yugoslavia through a group of war correspondents. Chouraqui’s feature arguably comes closer than any non-documentary work to date in conveying the horror of the ethnic cleansing that devastated that country in the 1990s.
Though it’s well played, the bland opening section is unpromising. Title character Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn) is a veteran war photojournalist for Newsweek with a distinguished career and a Pulitzer Prize behind him. The film pencils in his happy but sometimes strained marriage to Sarah (MacDowell), the weight of his long, too-frequent absences on his relationship with their two kids, the friendship tinged with rivalry that ties him to fellow photo-reporter Yeager Pollock (Elias Koteas), and the resentment directed at him by hot-headed Kyle (Adrien Brody), another reporter whose work has never received the same recognition.
Sarah goes to pieces when word comes back that Harrison has gone missing and is presumed dead on his farewell assignment in 1991 Yugoslavia, at the start of what then appeared to be a minor conflict. Refusing to believe he’s dead, she barricades herself in a room and stays glued to CNN until she becomes convinced she sees her husband among a group of prisoners being taken to Vukovar.
The action then switches to Europe as Sarah flies to Graz in Austria. Compelled more by passionate certainty than by reason, she hires a car to drive to Yugoslavia (Czech Republic locations stand in), teaming up with a Paris-based Croatian student eager to re-enter the country and move his family to safety.
While MacDowell is not always the most resourceful of actresses, her soft edges and somewhat guileless manner can be used to good effect in showing an ordinary woman shattered by dramatic events. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in her horrific introduction to war, when Serbian tank and rifle fire halts the car in which Sarah is traveling, the student is shot dead alongside her and she narrowly escapes being raped by a soldier.
From this point on, the film takes on an entirely different charge, instantly establishing tension and a raw, shocking quality and maintaining its grip throughout Sarah’s terrifying ordeal. While still stunned and speechless after the attack, she is picked up by a group of photographers that includes Kyle and Irish colleague Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson). While they attempt to persuade Sarah that her presence in Yugoslavia is madness and that Harrison almost certainly is dead, she remains undeterred.
She finds unexpected support from Kyle, accompanying her on the increasingly dangerous route to Vukovar. Weathering heavy sniper attacks, Sarah begins photographing the accelerating chain of atrocities and death she witnesses and sending the pics back to Newsweek, attributing them to Harrison. Yeager pieces together what’s really going on and travels to Yugoslavia in an attempt to bring her back, but ends up joining the group on the last leg to the Vukovar hospital.
Given the much-less physically demanding style of cinema that has been director Chouraqui’s forte till now, the skill with which the highly potent war scenes are handled is doubly impressive. And despite the seeming improbability of certain aspects of Sarah’s journey, the sobriety and intelligence brought to the material make it quite persuasive. The impact of the war scenes and of the central story of a civilian whose fear is overshadowed by love is matched by the drama’s stirring portrait of the reckless courage of the correspondents who place their lives in danger, with key characters talking direct-to-camera at intervals about the nature of war and war coverage.
While the U.S. scenes are visually unremarkable, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini has done a creditable job of capturing both the unnerving stillness and silence of the quiet spells and the unpredictable panic of full-scale conflict, with judicious use of handheld cameras and digital footage occasionally worked into the mix.
Called upon mainly to look stunned but determined through most of the action, MacDowell gives the drama a solid, affecting center. Brody is on target with another smart, edgy performance as a character set up to be a troublemaker but ultimately transformed into a source of surprising strength and commitment, while Strathairn, Koteas and Gleeson also have strong moments.