Michael Winterbottom’s previous films include Jude, the bleakest English literary adaptation ever, and Butterfly Kiss, a lesbian-serial-killer flick so grim it was farcical. For his designated breakthrough film, however, the director has turned Spielbergian.
Like Schindler’s List and Amistad, Welcome to Sarajevo brazenly juggles brutality and sentimentality. It also appoints an official saviorin this case a U.K. journalistto rescue worthy but exotic people who can’t speak for themselves. The film depicts the horror of living in Bosnia during the ruptured Yugoslavia’s civil war, but ultimately it’s about man’s inhumanity to innocent childrenand the ordeal of being English in an uncivilized land.
In the last few years, Washingtonians who pay close attention to the city’s smaller cinemas have been able to see Vukovar, Ulysses’ Gaze, Underground, and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. Those films, all made by Eastern European directors, offer searing portrayals of the brutalities and betrayals that accompanied Yugoslavia’s collapse. By comparison, Welcome to Sarajevo is a cartoon, albeit one drawn partially in real blood. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is based on true stories (including those in Natasha’s Story, a book by British TV correspondent Michael Nicholson), but its method owes more to MTV than the BBC.
Henderson (based on Nicholson and played by Stephen Dillane) and his crew (including An Angel at My Table’s Kerry Fox and Wish You Were Here’s Emily Lloyd) are trying to make the Bosnian carnage palpable to TV viewers in the U.K. Increasingly, though, the dejected Henderson feels that he’s wasting his time. He’s disgusted by hotdogging American correspondent Flynn (Woody Harrelson) and outraged that his dispatches aren’t a high priority with his bosses back in London. In an attempt to grab the attention of his viewers, Henderson begins to focus his reports on a Sarajevo orphanage, where he meets Emira (Emira Nusevic), a girl who makes Henderson promise that he will get her out of the country.
This vow becomes a problem when an American relief worker (Marisa Tomei in an earnest, career-boosting cameo) arrives to evacuate a busload of the orphans. Since she doesn’t have an overseas sponsor, Emira doesn’t qualify for the rescue. She insists that Henderson get her out, though, and so the journalist decides to adopt her himself. This sets up the most authentically harrowing sequence in the film: The bus full of children travels through the devastated countryside toward the coast and is stopped by Serbian partisans who search the bus for children with Serbian names, whom they seize.
Having accepted Emira into his congenial English family, Henderson gets a call from Bosnia: The girl’s birth mother wants her back. He returns to Sarajevo, which provides the opportunity for more pitiless violence. The real point of this sequence, though, is for Henderson to show Emira’s mother a videotape of the girl frolicking in the idyllic English countryside. There’s an alternative to Bosnia, and it’s the green and pleasant land whose existence the director’s previous films have denied.
Winterbottom didn’t actually shoot during the Bosnian conflict, as Volker Schlondorff did in Beirut for his indelible Circle of Deceit; the ceasefire was in effect by the time his cast and crew arrived in Sarajevo to simulate the butchery. Still, the film does intercut news footage of real corpses with its sit-dram scenes of correspondents bickering and bonding at their ramshackle Sarajevo hotel. The drama here is the resolution of another long-simmering ethnic rivalry: The urbane Henderson comes to realize that his bumptious American colleague Flynn, who cracks some of the movie’s better jokes, isn’t so bad. (To underscore the venerable hostility, the film even has Flynn taunt Henderson in a put-on Irish accent.)
At one point, Henderson rages that his latest report was overshadowed by news of Fergie’s planned divorce. Yet Welcome to Sarajevo is no less Anglocentric: The carnage rocks to the beat of Britain’s early-’90s hit paradethe Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Massive Attack, House of Love, the Stereo MCsas well as Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones. (More ironic is the use of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Eve of Destruction.”) For a trenchant perspective on the Bosnian war, you’ll have to wait for the (unlikely) revival of Underground or Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. For Welcome to Sarajevo’s essential message is that, despite occasional catastrophes in more barbarous climes, there’ll always be an England.
Writer-directors Jim Sheridan and Terry George have a story to tell, but it’s not the one at center of The Boxer. Their ongoing tale, already partially recounted by In the Name of the Father (directed by Sheridan) and Some Mother’s Son (directed by George), is that of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” Fortunately, there’s enough of that around the edges of The Boxer to redeem a glib love story.
Perhaps because it appeals to adolescent moviegoers who feel their passions are routinely thwarted by society, Romeo and Juliet’s plot has a new currency (most recently in Titanic). Here the star-crossed young lovers are Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Maggie Hamill (Breaking the Waves’ Emily Watson), while the disapproving elders who intend to keep them apart are the local IRA bosses. Danny and Maggie were inseparable 14 years ago, before he was imprisoned for IRA activities. Feeling abandoned, Maggie married one of Danny’s friends, another IRA man who soon also went to prison. That makes her a “prisoner’s wife,” whose loyalty to her husband is deemed essential to keeping up morale. As we see in an establishing scene, even dancing with a prisoner’s wife draws a swift rebuke from such IRA leaders as Harry (Gerard McSorley) and Joe (Brian Cox). To further complicate Maggie’s life, Joe is her father, and her son Liam (Ciaran Fitzgerald) has gotten old enough to be resentful of his mother and suspicious of Danny.
The Boxer opens with a flurry of pro-ceasefire comments by British, Irish, and American politicians, and the just-released Danny’s goal is to declare his own accord in smoldering Belfast. Both a fighter and a peacemaker, Danny rehabilitates his alcoholic former trainer (Ken Stott), and together they rebuild the Holy Family Boxing Club. There, they hope, Catholics and Protestants can sublimate their hostilities in nonsectarian brain-bashing. When his former IRA mates ask Danny what statement he’s making, he replies, “It’s just boxing.”
That, of course, is not true, either for Danny or his creators, writer-director Sheridan and co-writer George. Danny’s fight to bring Catholic and Protestant back together is mirrored by his effort to reunite with Maggie. The latter, however, works better as metaphor than love story. When it turns from politics to romance, the dialogue becomes stiff and didactic: “I’m the prisoner here,” Maggie tells her father, while Danny announces that, “Fourteen years I was locked up, and my feelings were locked up inside of me.” In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son concluded in a credible mix of triumph and failure, resolution and ambiguity, but The Boxer features a “happy” ending that’s more convenient than convincing.
That would be disastrous if Danny and Maggie’s rekindled romance were the movie’s main event. Danny’s return to boxing, however, is given just as much emphasis, and Day-Lewis, who trained for the role for three years, embodies Danny as utterly as he did the cerebral-palsied hero of My Left Foot, his first film for Sheridan. Equally riveting is the depiction of the culture of the prisoners’ wives, who earn status for enduring the most diminished of spousal relationships. (The film opens with the quick, unconsummated nuptials of a young woman and an incarcerated man.) Shot by A World Apart director Chris Menges, The Boxer is a vivid, fascinating look at the domestic culture of the IRA and its supporters. That Danny and Maggie themselves are less compelling than the world they inhabit turns out to be only a minor drawback. CP