Harrison's Flowers

on March 15, 2002 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
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   The madness of war explodes in vivid onscreen fury in the deceptively mildly titled “Harrison's Flowers.” The overarching storyline of a wife's single-minded search for her photographer husband reported killed in Croatia is blasted away by the jaw-dropping reality of the horror that journalists place themselves in to cover history as it unfolds. And in the end, it isn't the somewhat ludicrous heroics of unflagging devotion that remain etched on the mind, but the appallingly bleak, senseless brutality of modern warfare.

   Andie MacDowell is Sarah Lloyd, a Newsweek correspondent with two young children, a posh home and a globe-trotting husband, Harrison (the versatile David Strathairn). Harrison, a weary Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, realizes that his luck in working the world's hot spots has just about run out, yet his hopes to stay home, tend his flowers and get to know his children are squelched by Sarah and Harrison's editor Sam Brubeck (Alun Armstrong) and the Serb-Croatian war. Soon after Harrison begins covering the conflict, Brubeck is faced with the heartbreaking task of telling Sarah that her husband has been reported killed--a fact that Sarah refuses to accept since no body is found.

   Obsessively shutting out her family's need for closure, Sarah locks herself away, recording and studying cable news coverage of the unfolding conflict minute by minute. Days later, when she believes she sees blurred footage of Harrison in a group of refugees, Sarah drops everything to head off to the rescue.

   Sarah's brazen naiveté is shattered immediately upon arrival in Croatia when she drives her rental car directly into a street battle, in which her hapless hitchhiker passenger is slaughtered, the car run over by a tank and she herself beaten and nearly raped. Journalists combing through the destruction aftermath find Sarah, uniting her with Harrison's compatriots--belligerent young freelancer Kyle (Adrien Brody) and his cantankerous Irish counterpart, Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson)--who are both flabbergasted by Sarah's appearance. The irascible Kyle dedicates himself to Sarah's mad quest while Stevenson comes along presumably for the opportunity to shoot rare footage. The trio is joined at a crucial juncture by Harrison's best friend and fellow photographer Yeager (Elias Koteas).

   While reckless improbability is often the hallmark of good romances, the saga of Sarah and Harrison resonates with an air of exasperation rather than the power of love. Instead of an indication of devotion, Sarah's tenacity comes across more as a kind of spoiled entitlement that even MacDowell's fine performance can't overcome. Although co-writer and director Elie Chouraqui certainly anticipated that the insanity of the conflict and Sarah's foolhardiness would mirror each other to an extent, in light of thoughts provoked by recent world events, the tale has taken on added dimensions. Sarah's blind focus on saving Harrison as hundreds of men, women and children are brutally massacred in front of her make Harrison appear, as an American, inherently more valuable than anyone else. More distressing is the fact that Sarah never goes beyond looking stunned during her self-imposed ordeal (and her initial response of taking over Harrison's assignment inexplicably goes nowhere). Once she returns home, there is little indication that the events she witnessed have affected her life or thought process at all. This brings an unintentionally troublesome edge to the film.

   Chouraqui co-wrote the story with Michael Katims, Dider Le Pecheur and Isabel Ellsen, basing the story very loosely on Ellsen's book of her experiences as a photojournalist. It is in the raw, graphic depiction of those events that the film finds its powerful, unrelenting voice. More than a story of romantic salvation, “Harrison's Flowers” is a stirring tribute to the bravery and dedication of the world's reporters who willingly walk into the nightmare of war not only to record the events for posterity, but to help us clearly see the world of our making. Starring Andie MacDowell, Elias Koteas, Adien Brody and David Strathairn. Directed and produced by Elie Chouraqui. Written by Elie Chouraqui, Isabel Ellsen, Michael Katims and Dider Le Pecheur. A Universal Focus release. War drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 119 min

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