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Bait and Switch 

Perhaps the problem with Harrison's Flowers isn't that it plays fast and loose with the truth, so often the accusation leveled at most "fact-based" stories. No, the main concern about this story of a woman's search for her photographer husband in war-torn former Yugoslavia is that it masquerades as a fact-based story when it isn't. With its specific dates running along the bottom of the screen, real-feel Newsweek office sets, hand-held cameras, grainy-film grit and an out-of-left-field voice-over narration toward the end, Harrison's Flowers indeed has the look of a truth-is-stranger than fiction work. Well, almost; director Elie Chouraqui adapted the film from photojournalist Isabel Ellsen's novel, and used many of her still photographs taken from the Yugoslavian civil war.

Compounding matters is the timing of its release, as our nation still mourns the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Afghanistan. So it's a little challenging to judge the merits of Harrison's Flowers with a truly objective eye.

But regardless of its timing, there's something a little unnerving at the heart of Harrison's Flowers. For Chouraqui, a critically acclaimed director of such works as The Groundhogs and The Liars, seems to be saying that only the greatest love can overcome the most gruesome war. And while he deals with the love between Sarah and Harrison Lloyd with a certain degree of subtlety, it feels awkward with the knowledge that there's no literal truth to it. It's a romantic metaphor set against a visceral reality, and you can't help but feel a little manipulated by the whole thing.

The film's impact is undeniable, and starts out intriguingly enough with Harrison (David Strathairn), a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Newsweek (well, not really), realizing that the allure of danger in his foreign-correspondence isn't worth the risk of losing his life, his wife and two kids. Sarah is pressing him to spend more time at home, while his editor Sam (Alun Armstrong) wants him to honor his contract first. His rival, fellow Pulitzer Prize snoot Yeager, probably wouldn't mind a little less competition. It is at this point that the growing civil war in Yugoslavia in 1991 ­ at the time a curious affair to Americans ­ beckons. So off Harrison goes, and soon after is presumed killed in a bombed building. Sarah knows better, and dashes off to the region.

You'd think Harrison's Flowers would turn into an unending series of implausible set-ups -- land mines on Sarah's road to rescue -- and maybe you'd be right. But with the eye of award-winning cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Chouraqui keeps it oh-so-real. How fitting that Sarah, who as Harrison's colleague knows a little something about photography, literally and figuratively becomes our eyes. There's a side benefit here; MacDowell has never been a technically proficient actress, so by keeping her quiet for long stretches of time and having her simply witness the carnage of war, Chouraqui uses MacDowell's limited talents to great effect.

And the carnage is relentless. From the moment she hits the country, her Audi rental is trashed by a tank, her hitchhiker companion is shot point-blank in the head and she's almost raped. Next thing she knows, she's rescued by a team of photographers who bring her back to their headquarters, where she is recognized by one of Harrison's more spiteful, younger colleagues, Kyle (Adrien Brody). He's incredulous at her presence, of course, having already seen the preview of Yugoslavia's madness: "This is no place for the living."

Sarah's dedication to finding her husband knocks the chip off Kyle's shoulder long enough for him and fellow shooter Stevenson (Brendan Gleason) to help her go into the mouth of the war: Kosovar, where Harrison may be holed up in a hospital. Kyle's motives wreak of ambiguity; does he admire Sarah's commitment to Harrison, or does he envy Harrison? Perhaps both. Either emotion seems an odd fit for such a cynical, coked-up photographer, but Brody pulls it off with a toughness that has marked his other work like The Summer of Sam. Gleason, so good in The General, mixes his Irish bombast with a gradual case of failing nerve that has tragic consequences. When Yeager learns of Sarah's mission, he's off to the rescue -- but for whom isn't clear either, setting up what almost feels like a love quadrangle.

En route, they witness one horror after another -- mass graves here, random executions there, a ton of explosions -- almost to the point of numbness for the viewer. Then, out of nowhere, as if to make the "truth" feel even more true, Yeager begins a voice-over narration that feels completely out of place -- at least for those who know this part of the film isn't real.

As an in-your-face history lesson of war, Harrison's Flowers is unequivocally on target. As a love story, it's a nice piece. But adding everything up is where the trouble begins. Maybe we all need a little time before that verdict comes in.

click to enlarge Photojournalist Kyle (Adrien Brody) tries to get Sarah (Andie MacDowell) to see the light in Harrison's Flowers.
  • Photojournalist Kyle (Adrien Brody) tries to get Sarah (Andie MacDowell) to see the light in Harrison's Flowers.


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