Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orleans, was born circa 1412. She was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1431, only 19 years old. There have been a few notable movies made about her life, most notably of course the silent 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (currently available as a superb Criterion collection disc), then in 1999 Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element) took his then wife Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Resident Evil) back to the big screen as the woman who the Catholic church canonised some 500 years after her death.
The story is an age old affair which most will know from their schooldays, so I feel I'm not giving away too much here. Joan is born in a sleepy village to a family of devout Catholics. She takes things one stage further though and prefers attending confession on a daily, sometime hourly basis, rather than play with her friends in the fields. Her true friend she says is a man who speaks to her in visions. One of these visions compel her to battle the invading, occupying English armies; something for which she is initially ridiculed however as the commanding powers witness the rallying effect she has on their troops they gladly follow her from battle to battle. This continues until The Dauphin of France (John Malkvoich) becomes King, at which point he removes his support from her, removes the armies under her command, and ultimately allows the province of Burgundy to capture her, put her on trial then hand her over to the occupying English forces for judgement.
Regardless of your belief in a greater power, visions to be foretold and the possibility of an everlasting life, the Joan of Arc story has continued down the ages because of one thing alone. At such a young age she was in fact able to instil a sense of belonging, a sense of belief in the French forces that then encouraged and motivated them to drive out the forces which were occupying their country; Joan of Arc is to France what Sir William Wallace is to Scotland, although when he went on the rampage the only greater power he was speaking to was his own conscience. Both of these historical periods are ripe for glorification on the big screen and whereas Braveheart succeeded in presenting a heart rousing enjoyable romp (albeit at the expense of some vast historical inaccuracies) Besson's attempt with Joan of Arc essentially burns itself out becoming a smouldering mess of a film.
Like many other people I have enjoyed his earlier work. Leon is perhaps regarded as his best feature and the stylistic machinations of The Fifth Element perfectly blended to the comic book caper that it was. Whilst not producing a great piece of movie history certainly, for me anyway, it was a good enough piece of science fiction with all the necessary fragments to keep me captivated to the final moments. Equally I have always enjoyed John Malkvoich's performances in most of his works. So a stylistic director, the eye candy of his then wife coupled with the somewhat melancholy acting of Malkvoich I thought would offer a good basis for this young woman's life; however it never really worked out that way.
The film starts out well enough detailing her early life and her fondness for the church, and her growing hatred for the English forces as they burn her small village to the ground. It becomes apparent in these early scenes that she is having visions of come description, whether hallucinatory, epileptic in nature or true messages from a 'higher being' are left to the viewers own imagination and no doubt religious beliefs. From that point on though it does indeed become a sloppy affair. The 'grown' Joan, played by Jovovich in no way instils that sense of urgency, feeling or patriotism in the viewer and at just over a hour into the film with still a good 100 minutes remaining I was eagerly awaiting the stake scene just to put myself and the cast out of their own misery. Jovovich's performance has no depth, no inspiration other than shouting her head off leading the French peasants into battle. This becomes rather irritating for the most part and when she eventually gets shot by an arrow you're hoping that Besson is in fact changing history to the degree that the heroine just dies there and then; get it over with and get it over with quickly was my thought on this matter.
Similarly Malkvoich, who normally produces a sterling performance looks troubled here, almost ashamed of the script he is forced to follow. This has to be my least favourite film of his and will now think twice before automatically thinking his name on a film gives that feature some weight, some credit. Although he might well be one of the leading names in the film he doesn't appear in there for too long a period of time and for that if nothing else both myself, and presumably him, were eternally grateful. Sundry roles performed by Faye Dunaway as the manipulating King's mother, Vincent Cassel as one of the commanders of the armies Joan leads are played well enough for the limited exposure they have but I must admit when Dustin Hoffman appears near the end of the feature as an apparition of either Devil, God or hallucination was a surprise and at times descended to almost farcical proportions at the Life of Brian scale. His explanation to Joan regarding the sword she found as a young child had me falling of my reviewing chair and for me those brief few minutes were the highlight of this film; all for the wrong reasons though.
There are better versions out there if you wish to learn a little more about this woman and the period she lived though and suffered under. There are better films out there on similar events or circumstances, notably Braveheart being the one mentioned above. This though does not offer anything of any merit to the watcher at all other than a burning desire to track down Luc Besson and ask what hallucinations he was experiencing whilst making this film.
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