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[whitespace] 'Harrison's Flowers'
Photograph by Isabel Ellsen

Behind Bosnian Lines: Andie MacDowell learns that war in hell in 'Harrison's Flowers.'

Beyond Vukovar

'Harrison's Flowers' is another Bosnian debacle

By Richard von Busack

IN ELIE CHOURAQUI'S stale melodrama Harrison's Flowers, Andie MacDowell plays Sarah Lloyd, the wife of a Newsweek photographer who goes missing in Bosnia and is presumed dead. Despite the warnings of colleagues and friends, she ditches her children and heads deep into the interior of former Yugoslavia to find him. The film is based on a novel by Isabel Ellsen, a photographer who was an actual war correspondent. But the real template for Harrison's Flowers comes from the flamboyant women's pictures of the 1940s, where a heroine would go off into harm's way for the sake of a man. (The scenes of Sarah riding through an artillery barrage in the middle of a city to get to shelter merge in the mind with Scarlett O'Hara's wagon ride through the burning of Atlanta.)

Because of MacDowell's slightness as a performer--because she doesn't look inhumanly resourceful or passionate--what should seem like a woman's do-or-die resolution looks pettish and skittish. All she possesses is wifely intuition--no man can argue with it, for she is right and they are wrong. When she's upbraided by the war correspondents who tell her she's insane to go into the line of fire, you agree with the correspondents. Giving her and Harrison children may have been a dramatic mistake--what's going to become of them if both parents end up dead?

As the lost husband, David Strathairn seems like the basically sane person you'd want to have roaming around recording the insanity of war. Thanks to Strathairn's depths, he does look like he's been through the ringer. His calmness--even his desire to retire to the greenhouse to photograph flowers--serves as a provocation to his mad, spouting fellow correspondent Kyle (Adrien Brody, overacting again). When Sarah arrives in Europe, it's the angry, reluctant Kyle who explains the situation. Along with the slobby Irish correspondent Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson), they head into the heart of the fighting.

The war scenes, staged in the countryside near Prague, have some weight. They're old-movie big, and Harrison's Flowers is shot in widescreen; these moments are as interesting as they can be in a film where the heroine is kind of a pain. Still, one can wonder about the rightness of using real-life tragedy to anchor a strictly melodramatic plot. It's all just a background for MacDowell's acting out the emotional force of a woman who won't be stopped, leaking tears as she witnesses all the inhumanity around her.

Ultimately, the film is about the importance of witnessing and running away. However, a picture isn't literally worth a thousand words. In the United States, we saw plenty of pictures of the Bosnian war, and yet very few could explain satisfactorily what went on. The moral of Harrison's Flowers is "It's a filthy fucking war, just like all filthy fucking wars." And with that kind of explanation, there's no need to see this film on the grounds that you wanted to learn more about the war.


Harrison's Flowers (R; 122 min.), directed and written by Elie Chouraqui, photographed by Nicola Pecorini and starring Andie MacDowell and David Strathairn, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the March 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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