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(1999) (Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich) (R)

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Drama: A young French woman, believing herself to be a messenger of God, tries to drive the English from her homeland during the 15th century.
It's the early 15th century and the English rule much of France during the bloody Hundred Years' War. Charles VII (JOHN MALKOVICH) of France will not abandon the kingdom that his rightly his, but realizes he can't be crowned king until the English are driven from Rheims.

He gets his chance when he receives a message that he's to be visited by a young woman who claims to be a messenger from God sent to aid him and the French. She's Joan (MILLA JOVOVICH), a devoutly religious teenager who several years earlier witnessed the English sack her village and rape and kill her older sister. Having experienced various visions of God that included her finding a battle sword, Joan knows that her mission is to see that Charles is crowned king by driving the English from France.

While his aides discourage him from meeting this woman they believe to be a possible assassin, Charles' regal mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon (FAYE DUNAWAY), persuades him to. As such, Charles is impressed that the young woman is able to identify him from a large crowd despite his captain, Jean D'Aulon (DESMOND HARRINGTON), posing as him.

Believing that he might as well give Joan a shot, Charles sends her off to fight with his half-brother, Dunois (TCHEKY KARYO), a strategy-based officer who doesn't believe in Joan's more impulsive battle tactics. Nonetheless, Joan's efforts of leading the French result in victory after victory, her becoming a hero, and Charles eventually being crowned King of France.

Yet Charles soon loses interest in raging war and cuts off her military aide despite her continued efforts to drive the English from her homeland. Eventually captured and brought up on charges of heresy before an ecclesiastical court, Joan is taunted by visions of her Conscience (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), who makes her begin to question her previous visions and religious faith.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Stage, TV and motion picture actors and actresses all use various means of playing their characters. Some do heavy research into their roles while others take more of a fly by the seat of their pants approach and see where that tactic takes them and their characters.

Another approach at getting into playing a role is by following the precept of method acting. Created by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky and later taught by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York, method acting was -- and still is -- mainly known for its one core, guiding principle.

And that was that a performer would best play his or her part by becoming their character and experiencing everything the way they would, including drawing on their own experiences to extract the necessary emotional and behavioral responses to make them and the role nothing short of completely believable.

If that's the case with actress Milla Jovovich and her performance in "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," she needs to make an appointment with a mental health practitioner ASAP. While there's been debate about the sanity of the real-life historical figure who's been portrayed many times before on stage, film and TV (most recently with Leelee Sobieski portraying her in the TV miniseries), whatever Jovovich may be pulling from her past or subconscious to express such overwrought emotional responses certainly deserves a once-over from a professional.

Although some may argue that she's correctly playing Joan -- the French teen presumably driven by religious visions but later "diagnosed" as possibly schizophrenic -- one would have to go way back in movie history to find such a blatant case of intentional, non-comedic overacting.

Jovovich, who made her mark in "The Fifth Element" before going on to appear in films such as "He Got Game," goes through such a wide range of emotions that you'll need a scorecard to keep track of all of them. One needn't worry, however, about missing any of them, as they're delivered with such fervor and exaggeration that you might think you're watching a mime who's finally gone over the edge into insanity.

Of course it doesn't help that writer/director Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita," "The Professional"), who directed Jovovich in "The Fifth Element" (and also married her) directs the film with an equally distracting, overzealous approach. Not content to let the story unfold on its own, Besson slam dunks it down the audience's throat.

Jettisoning important bits of the story -- causing the audience to fill in some important blanks on their own -- and replacing them with an extreme overuse of dramatic music and meaningless visuals (sped up clouds, slow motion shots of Jovovich's flowing hair, etc...) that only show the pompousness of the overall proceedings, Besson delivers an empty, 90s version of the well-known story.

Much like the Kevin Costner version of "Robin Hood," this one feels like a bunch of performers who got together and decided to do their own take on the story, complete with some American accents for the French characters and plenty of dialogue that's decidedly not of the early 15th century. That's not to mention Jovovich's hair color that obviously and constantly changes throughout the film to such a degree that you'll wonder what hair product contract she's currently under.

To be fair, the film does have some decent medieval battle scenes (for those who enjoy such material) and enough otherwise entertaining moments to make the film relatively easy to watch. Yet whenever Besson gets too artsy-craftsy with Joan's visions and/or Jovovich turns on her acting and facial expression afterburners, such decent moments are completely dashed.

While the film follows the true-life, chronological story, it does become rather episodic once it enters the heresy trial period, with just bits and pieces of the courtroom material being intercut with long passages of what has to the oddest role Oscar winning actor Dustin Hoffman ("Rainman," "The Graduate") has ever embodied. Playing the physical manifestation of Joan's conscience, Hoffman turns the "character" into a combination of Death (complete with dark hood) and Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs" (albeit sans the cannibal part) and only exists to question and drill the now nervous and meek Joan.

The film does benefit from having a great cast, but as is the case with Hoffman, Besson doesn't get the best out of his performers and/or doesn't allow them much screen time to do their thing. The ever dependable John Malkovich ("Being John Malkovich," "Rounders") is decent as the King of France, but suffers from what turns out to be an underdeveloped role. He shines in comparison, however, to Faye Dunaway ("Network," "Bonnie and Clyde") who doesn't get much time to do anything substantial with her character.

Although it comes off as a mildly entertaining piece when it sticks with the period-type approach and should at least partially please fans of medieval-based fare (with great looking costumes and battle cinematography), whenever Besson throws in the odd, 90s style visuals and Jovovich goes into her overacting mode, the film quite simply derails.

The same holds true for moments in the script by Besson and co-writer Andrew Birkin ("The Name of the Rose") where they ask the audience to buy into events and character motivations. Those include, but aren't limited to, Joan becoming something of a legend in the several year gap between seeing her sister be raped and killed and then approaching the dauphin, or the soldiers instantly following Joan into battle in a time when men weren't that likely to give non-royal women much, if any, respect.

Most notable for offering just more graphic battle scenes than previously presented for this historic story, the film ultimately comes off as nothing more than a momentary cinematic diversion that will likely fade rather quickly from the theaters and most moviegoers' memories. While messengers often say not to shoot them since, well, because they're just messengers, some may want to do just that to this one after seeing it. As such, we give "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 8, 1999 / Posted November 12, 1999

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