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July 2000

The Messenger
Reviewed by Greg Weaver
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: **
Picture Quality: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Packaged Extras: **

Starring Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman

Directed by Luc Besson

Theatrical Release: 1999
DVD Release: 2000
Dolby Digital 5.1
Widescreen (Anamorphic)


Even before her birth in 1412, there existed in French mythology the prophecy of a virgin peasant maid from Lorraine who would step forward in a time of great national unrest and turmoil to lead the kingdom of France to Salvation. In his latest epic, action director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element) presents a very picturesque, but in light of more recent historical discoveries, apocryphal version, of the legend of the French-patriot-born Jeanne d'Aragon and her part in the Hundred Years War.

The film opens languidly with a scene concocted to acquaint us with the religious fervor of the young Jeanne, who is confessing to her priest for the second time that day. Next we witness one of her early visions, the pivotal one in which she finds a sword lying beside her and discovers her true calling. The jerky, uneven plot then introduces us to the English, who are plundering her village as they sweep through France after the death of King Charles the VI. One scene depicts Jeanne hiding in a cabinet while a group of English soldiers rape and murder her older sister. Jeanne then goes to live with her relatives, becomes more devoted to God and more committed to do his bidding , which she believes is to see the English burn in hell.

Up to this point, the development is forced and labored, and unfortunately it doesn’t improve. In Chinon we are introduced to the French Royal house, where much is going on despite the fact that most of France is essentially besieged. We meet the inner court and learn that Jeanne is on her way to announce herself and pledge her support. Amidst the rampant turmoil and indecision of the Royal house, we discover that the Dauphine and his followers propose a ruse, just in case the prophesized "virgin maid" should turn out to be an assassin. John Malkovich’s performance delivers his usual dose of charisma and, in my opinion, he delivers the only even mildly remarkable performance in this stogy and stumbling script.

The film depicts the almost maniacal cycling of Jeanne’s strength as a leader and her recurring doubt as she witnesses the carnage of warfare. The battle scenes are for the most part faithful to the military capabilities and strategies of the time and are filmed with Besson’s usual exceptional attention to detail.

With the tide turned and both the military and the people of France rallying behind her, she is refused reinforcements and support while trying to liberate Paris. She naÔvely storms the castle, interrupting Charles in the bath, and tells him that France really belongs to God, not the King. She wishes to continue the fight, and with the people and their faith in her as the prophesized liberator of France, it might be possible for her to raise her own army. This would destroy any chances of a diplomatic solution to the war. As a diplomatic resolution to the war would be less costly to the King and his coffers, he is persuaded to allow the British to capture her. They have, after all, been thoroughly humiliated by this woman-child and they would love nothing more than to effect their revenge. Heresy is the perfect charge since Jeanne hears voices and claims that it is God that tells her what she must do.

Even as she pleads to continue the warring and to finish driving the British entirely out of France, the plan to betray her is set in place. She is eventually captured and turned over to the English Church. The dramatization of the heresy hearing is slowly paced and uninteresting (not to mention inaccurate).

As she reflects upon her deeds in prison she has a vision in which Dustin Hoffman’s character appears to her. The vision is completely inscrutable and if it weren’t for the closing credits identifying his as "the conscience" his significance would go wholly unrecognized. The trial scenes, thought supposedly based on the historical records of the actual proceedings, are both tedious and are even more bumpy than the earlier parts of the film. Jovovich’s performance here begins to border on comic book, rather than dramatic, and it leaves you hoping for a mercifully expedient resolution. However, we are not so lucky. It goes on, and on. The film concludes with Jeanne’s burning, and takes some two and half-hours to do so. Call me old fashioned, but even an entertaining historical fiction should have some basis in the history it tries to retell. The French, not the British, tried, convicted and burned Jeanne.

The score and sound track are representative of Besson’s films and will serve to give your subwoofer a solid workout. Dialogue in several instances becomes unclear and unintelligible, especially during the background din of many of the battle sequences. Other than the instances mentioned, the dialogue is well presented. The musical score is well balanced, and never seems to force itself upon the participation of the event.

Overall, the video transfer is quite good. Scenes in the Dauphines castle, most of the battles and sieges and many of the other incidentals are bright, clear and luminous. This is to be expected from Besson; he is a very visual director. Nevertheless, the final cutting of the film, the actual flow of the picture, seems forced and borders on uncomfortable.

Packaged extras are lean, including only the HBO documentary film, the talent files of the director and major cast members, the theatrical trailer and the ability to turn on or off the isolated music score. This film could have been realized in much less than the tedious two and a half hours plus, and likely would have been more involving, as it would have demanded better editing.

Filmed on a grand scale that unmistakably reveals Besson’s handiwork, the dazzling and remarkable cinematography is not enough to save this picture. An uneven and regularly faltering script, dotted with epic war scenes and their special effects, filled with so many lack luster, almost cardboard, performances, and only a slight resemblance to historical fact conspire to make The Messenger one of 1999’s biggest disappointments. You may chose to rent this one, but only if the film you were searching for isn’t on the shelf.   


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