Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The (UK - BD)
Reviewer Marcus Doidge checks out this Luc Besson epic on Blu-ray disc
Joan was a French girl who loved talking to god from an early age. She liked to confess to a priest everyday and she thought the world was wonderful because of it. Then the English invaded her village and she witnessed them kill her sister.
Years later, the would-be King of France (if not for the English), Charles VII (John Malkovich) receives word from an older Joan (Milla Jovovich) requesting she be given an army to lead against the British, so she can do God’s work and make sure Charles is crowned King of France as he ought to be. Despite having no experience of war and coming off as a bit of a mental, Joan soon proves that may very well have God on her side and that soon brings about problems of its own.
I’d never seen this Luc Besson historical epic and to be honest, the majority of the reviews I’d read or heard from friends were lukewarm at best. Going in, I was initially struck by how Braveheart this all was, which considering the release being just four years after Mel’s epic genre re-igniter was understandable. Studios do so love taking chances trying to recapture another popular movie’s appeal after all. However, what Braveheart has over The Messenger (as well as many of its other wannabes) is a steady hand. The Messenger is just a little too chaotic in its opening hour or so to allow its audience to get comfortable.
For starters, this is probably the worst example of strange casting in the history of strange casting for the ‘epic’ movie genre. We’re all used to having Scottish playing Irish, English playing French, or American playing Greek, but it’s a really tough pill to swallow here. As a bit of a recap, Joan is French, but speaks in a sort of American accent, Charles VII is the king of France, but is John Malkovich being John Malkovich. All of the French priests have English accents, as do the French soldiers (other than a very pirate-y looking Vincent Cassel). This wouldn’t be so bad if all of these characters weren’t fighting against the English, who are all, well… English. It’s all easy enough to follow for the most part, but doesn’t really work when you’re meant to be siding with the glory of France and the French people who aren’t even close to feeling French.
On top of that, there’s a lot of fluff around the main point of the story. When your focus is on Joan proving her validity as a messenger for God, it’s hard to see the point in some of the smaller scenes between many of the bit players and their discussions on things that don’t even involve Joan. The movie comes in at a whopping one hundred and fifty eight minutes and there’re at least twenty minutes that could have been lost without affecting the story at all.
Looking into a bit of films history, it seems much of the controversy was over Milla’s central performance as Joan, as well as how historically accurate the story was. In regards to the historical accuracy, I don’t let these things concern me as a movie watcher generally, so I can let that one slide but Milla’s performance is a tough one to call. I can’t work out if it’s inappropriately amusing or borderline genius. I know for sure that eighty percent of the performance feels like acting—unnatural, awkward and rehearsed. However, that other twenty percent is almost mesmerising. Joan is essentially a total crank who believes totally that God has called upon her to help and she will win because he has told her so. Because of that, Joan is madly confident, always seeing signs of God’s instruction around her and coming off as pretty close to deranged. Milla somehow makes this endearing, even when she is at her most wacky. She makes Joan feel like a broken, fragile girl who genuinely needs all of this to happen to make her whole. Someone who must have the war in God’s name but struggles with the bloodshed around her and the internal conflict that this may all be revenge for what happened to her sister. It’s a tough one to call but I think this may be a great performance despite there being a lot you have to let go in order to really find it.
All of this really comes into focus in the film’s final act. After Joan has been cast aside by her King and is in the hands of the English. They want to execute her, but have to prove she is not a messenger from God. Joan remains strong despite their persistence and to counter that, in the privacy of her cell, Joan is plagued by her conscience (Dustin Hoffman) questioning all of her actions up to this point. Besson co wrote this with Andrew Birkin and my hat goes off to them for including this element to the movie. To actually question the motivation of the much praised Joan of Arc and bring it down to the human levels of suggesting the possibility that she’d deluded herself that God had asked her to do all of this is a nice slant on what could have been quite a generic life story celebrating only the glory days of this historical figure.
Initially I was incredibly impressed by the picture quality here. The opening scene with young Joan talking to a priest in a confession booth really shows off the beauty of high def movies. Joan’s eyes framed within the diamond partition of the booth look amazing. Her skin tone was represented perfectly, showing every pore and freckle and her eye looked fantastic. The following scenes in wide open French fields, chocked full of bright flowers that popped to life on screen were really impressive, but sadly as the film moves on all of this disappeared and generally nothing really registers.
It could be that I’ve grown used to what HD can do, or I have now seen similar locations in other films look better, but other than the occasional well-lit shot everything feels a little bland here. Detail flitters between great (take a look at the chain-mail armour) to dull (the castle locations) and the battles all feel very grey in tone and because of the thick layers of mist in some shots the grain really makes itself known.
As I said, I’d never seen the movie before to compare how it may have looked in the past, but this Blu-ray release does a fairly standard job on a quite typical looking nineties epic.
There was only one thing in the entire mix that did anything to call attention to itself in my opinion and that was Dustin Hoffman’s first appearance. His voice coming through all the speakers and bass was incredibly effective and really set the tone of this character. Outside of that, this was all very normal. The battles had hardly any dynamics, there seemed to be little to no atmospheric noises in the, what should be, echo-y castles or buildings full of people. The dialogue was all strong and the score were clear and well presented but only in a way you’d expect rather than in a way you’d notice. There’s nothing wrong with the mix at all, it’s just a little uneventful really.
A Men in Black trailer and Blu-ray show-reel trailer. Exactly what you’d expect from a movie drenched in history and epic filmmaking, right? I sense there may be a better edition for The Messenger, but it certainly ain’t here.
The Messenger has a good amount of problems that not everyone would have the patience with, but I have to say that despite said problems, I came away from this Joan of Arc story really quite liking it.
It’s full of everything you’d want out of an epic movie (before they all went too CGI). It’s got a great mix of solid performances and a central character that locks you into the events, even if it’s not always in the good way and on a personal note I can now say I know a bit more about Joan of Arc beyond what I learnt in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 1st December 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Dgitial 5.1 Hungarian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Polish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Russian
Subtitles: English, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Daniash, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Hindi, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Swedish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway
Genre: Drama and War
Length: 158 minutes
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