[Screen It]

(2002) (Andie MacDowell, Adrien Brody) (R)

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Drama: After her photojournalist husband is reportedly killed in Yugoslavia, a woman travels to the war-torn country determined to prove that he's not dead and rescue him.
It's 1991 and Harrison Lloyd (DAVID STRATHAIRN) is a photojournalist for Newsweek who's just returned home from an overseas story to his wife, Sarah (ANDIE MacDOWELL), who also works for the publication, and their two kids, Cesar (SCOTT MICHAEL ANTON) and Margaux (QUINN SHEPHERD).

Harrison's long and repeated absences have put a strain on his relationship with Cesar, and he's informed his editor, Samuel Brubeck (ALUN ARMSTRONG), that he wants out of the business due to that and feeling that his luck of staying safe and/or alive in such hotspots has probably run out.

Nevertheless, Harrison, who spends his spare time caring for his flowers in the family's greenhouse, is sent to Yugoslavia to cover the recent unrest there, but promises to be back in time for Cesar's birthday. That never happens, however, as he's reportedly killed while on the job, although his body is never recovered.

Distraught at first, but believing she'd feel different if he truly was dead, Sarah refuses to accept the news that everyone else believes to be true. Accordingly, and after spotting what she thinks is a glimpse of Harrison in some new coverage, Sarah heads off to Yugoslavia. There, and after a brutal introduction to this foreign world, Sarah accepts the reluctant and skeptical aid of other photojournalists Yeager Pollack (ELIAS KOTEAS), Marc Stevenson (BRENDAN GLEESON) and Kyle Morris (ADRIEN BRODY) and sets out to find her husband.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
If a normal picture is worth a thousand words, those taken by photojournalists in war-torn locales or featuring prominent political, social or historical elements are obviously worth a great many more. In fact, before TV coverage took hold in the '60s, photographs were the main visual information for everyday citizens that managed to stick with them (unlike film newsreels in theaters that were far more fleeting despite the motion).

Who can forget the many images over the decades from Life Magazine and the like that not only captured the particular events, but also thus took a snapshot of our lives and society at the time? Outside of the photography or publishing world, however, few of those who captured such images on film were publicly known.

Yet, they and those who've followed in their footsteps obviously have led or continue to lead what must be intriguing lives filled with adventure, danger and the thought of potentially changing the world or at least informing it of what's occurring with their coverage.

That obviously hasn't escaped the attention of filmmakers over the years who've told the tales of such photographers and other related journalists in films such as "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Under Fire," "Salvador" and "Welcome to Sarajevo."

Now, "Harrison's Flowers," the fictitious tale of a woman going to extreme measures to find her missing photojournalist husband and witnessing firsthand the horrors that he and others capture on film, can be added to that list. Dedicated to the 48 photojournalists killed in Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995, the film is a disturbing but ultimately uplifting tale solidly conceived and executed by writer/director Elie Chouraqui ("Les Menteurs," "Les Marmotes") and co-writers Didier le Pecheur ("Don't Let Me Die On a Sunday," "News from the Good Lord") and Isabel Ellsen (making her debut).

Rather than just focusing on the day-to-day lives of the photojournalists, the filmmaker wisely adds an outside human element to serve as our novice guide through the mayhem. Accordingly, the story focuses not just on them or real life political strife and military mayhem of 1990s Yugoslavia, but also on the simple but perseverative love of a woman for her husband.

Fortunately, the film pretty much succeeds on all three levels, thanks to Chouraqui's efforts as well as those of his cast. While those looking for an in-depth exploration of or explanation for the historical events that serve as the story's backdrop may be disappointed by what's offered, the film does show - in an unflinching fashion - the horrors and atrocities that took place.

Although one is never quite sure who's who in the conflict until the end - which is perhaps the point Chouraqui's after in the anonymity of it all and/or the average American's ignorant viewpoint toward such matters -- the filmmaker is smart in not getting preachy about the material and instead allows it to speak for itself.

Any sort of sociopolitical posturing aside, however, and notwithstanding some occasional, but unnecessary voice over narration that feels tacked on, the film is - from a boiled down plot standpoint - a search and rescue story with a strong female character as the picture's hero.

Playing that part with a great deal of credibility - but thankfully no Schwarzenegger-style machismo and/or gun toting - is actress Andie MacDowell. After mostly being typecast in romantic comedy pictures such as "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Groundhog Day," the actress would initially seem to be somewhat an unlikely choice for the role, despite having done previous dramatic work. Thankfully temporarily abandoning the L'Oreal look, the actress' performance feels credible from start to finish, whether her character is in Martha Stewart surroundings or covered in and crawling through the mud.

Although his part obviously isn't as meaty as his costar's - mostly because he goes missing not far into the story -- David Strathairn ("Simon Birch," "The River Wild") is as solid as ever playing the photojournalist, even if his scenes with his young son - played by Scott Michael Anton (making his debut) - don't quite ring true and feel a bit forced at times. That's mostly due to the young actor's somewhat wooden performance, but some slack should be cut since it's hard to pull off the sort of emotion required of him at a young age, especially for an inexperienced performer.

As the father's colleagues - both friend and foe -- Adrien Brody ("Bread and Roses," "Summer of Sam"), Brendan Gleeson ("The Tailor of Panama," "The General") and Elias Koteas ("Collateral Damage," "Novocaine") are all quite good in their respective roles, each adding credibility to their characters as well as the overall picture. That's a good thing since the film does occasionally need some suspension of disbelief to accept how things unfold and what characters do, although that doesn't come off as a debilitating flaw here.

Technical credits are topnotch, with solid work from cinematographer Nicola Pecorini ("Rules of Engagement," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), production designer Giantito Burchiellaro ("The Prince of Homburg," "The Monster") and the rest of the crew (working in the Czech Republic and New York) whose collective work makes the film feel real rather than that of a staged Hollywood production.

A showcase of human emotions and actions ranging from devoted love to indifferent murder and hatred, the film obviously won't appeal to all viewers. Yet, for those looking for a generally well-made picture with a compelling story to tell, you could obviously do far worse than what this film offers. "Harrison's Flowers" thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 18, 2002 / Posted March 15, 2002

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