"Harrison's Flowers" is a picture that's well-meaning but problematic, a love story set against the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia in October 1991. Through the frame of the love story, director Elie Chouraqui and his writers convincingly show us the terrible forces of ethnic cleansing. The depiction of the senseless slaughter of civilian Croats by Serbian troops is as unsparing in its intensity as any war movie that comes to mind.
Unfortunately, the narrative is not nearly as persuasive and thus the incessant battle scenes become punishing to watch. After all, the widespread atrocities accompanying the disintegration of Yugoslavia are by now not fresh news for all the immediacy of Chouraqui's hellish images.
Andie MacDowell is Sarah Lloyd, wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsweek photographer Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn), celebrated for his daring coverage of the world's hot spots. Harrison, however, has had it with his career, which has only sharpened his love for his wife and two small children, from whom he is often separated. He gets solace from the beautiful flowers he grows in his greenhouse in the backyard of his north Jersey suburban home. Harrison is so fed up he tells his boss (Alun Armstrong) that he wants to quit, but his boss, for whom Sarah also works as a photo editor, begs him to stay on awhile longer and promises to find him a safe, cushy spot.
The next day war in the Balkans breaks out. Harrison is swiftly on his way, and no sooner does he arrive than Sarah learns that he's been killed in the collapse of a building in a town a couple of hours' drive from Vukovar.
But Sarah feels strongly in her heart that Harrison is still alive. She takes off in search of him and easily enters the war zone.
She's instantly thrown in the path of relentless Serbian slaughter, captured by photographers Kyle Morris (Adrien Brody) and Marc Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson). Hotheaded Kyle recognizes Sarah, and, feeling guilty for an altercation he had with Harrison, promises her he'll get her to Vukovar, where Sarah is convinced she will find Harrison in the main hospital.
Marc sees this as crazy, but Kyle points out that they could all be killed any second, so why not do something that has meaning? At the least the journey might bring some closure for Sarah.
In the meantime, Harrison's best friend and fellow Pulitzer winner, photographer Yeager Pollack (Elias Koteas), turns up to rescue Sarah.
Chouraqui, a veteran French filmmaker, piles on the hairbreadth escapes as he attempts to pay homage to the fearlessness of front-line photographers. Yet he mostly avoids delving into what drives them to risk their lives; an exception is an exchange between Kyle and Marc, who believe that if not for their pictures, the world would never know what's going on.
Marc is a seasoned pro, but we need to know more of what fires the impassioned Kyle beyond his discovering that Sarah's mission might give his life some significance.
It's a little late in the day for filmmakers to be taking us into a war zone seen almost entirely through the viewpoint of Americans.
We may get the full visceral impact of a ruthless army on the warpath but no sense of the devilish complexity of the Balkans conflict. And the tremendous emphasis on Sarah's relentless determination has the uncomfortable effect of giving greater importance to her suffering than to that of the natives, many of them women and children, torn from their homes and caught in a barbaric civil war.
A lot of solid acting--particularly a stellar performance by MacDowell--and craftsmanship have gone into the making of "Harrison's Flowers," which was filmed largely in the Czech Republic, but it leaves us with a heightened appreciation of the bold and personal films made by a number of filmmakers of the former Yugoslavia.
MPAA rating: R, for strong war violence, gruesome images, pervasive language and brief drug use. Times guidelines: The film's depiction of war is far too intense for children.
Andie MacDowell...Sarah Lloyd
Elias Koteas...Yeager Pollack
Brendan Gleeson...Marc Stevenson
Adrien Brody...Kyle Morris
David Strathairn...Harrison Lloyd
A Universal Focus presentation of a co-production of 7 Films Cinema, StudioCanal and France 2 Cinema with the participation of Canal Plus. Producer-director Elie Chouraqui. Producer Albert Cohen. Screenplay by Elie Chouraqui, Didier le Pecheur and Isabel Ellsen, with the collaboration of Michael Katims; based on Ellsen's book "Le Diable a l'Avantage." Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini. Editor Jacques Witta. Music Cliff Eidelman. Costumes Mimi Lempicka. Production designer Giantito Burchiellaro. Art director Martin Martinec. Set decorator Nello Georgetti. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.