'A Private War' movie review: 'Rosamund Pike is excellent as renowned journalist Marie Colvin in a film that doesn’t quite work'
Also reviewed: 'Instant Family', 'Happy Death Day 2U', and 'The Kid Who Would be King'
I once interviewed the legendary war photographer Don McCullin. He and his camera popped up everywhere in the 1960s and 70s - Vietnam, Beirut, Northern Ireland, Palestine - but when I mentioned the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s, the light seemed to go out of his eyes. He was present at Stanleyville to witness the aftermath of massacres, and calmly described to me this tableau of human misery; he particularly remembered corpses bobbing, forever unclaimed, downriver. Then he fell silent.
War correspondents and photographers often end up seeing more combat than most soldiers, and the psychological effects can be devastating. This occupational hazard is central to Matthew Heineman's film A Private War, which is not so much a biopic of award-winning journalist Marie Colvin as a record of her time on the front line. Born in Queens, based in London, Colvin made her name after becoming The Sunday Times' Middle East correspondent in 1985: she was the first western journalist to interview Muammar Gaddafi, and got that famous quote about Ronald Reagan being "an Israeli dog".
In 1995, she discovered her true calling after being moved to the paper's foreign desk. "War is about what happens to people," she once said, and after witnessing the horrors of Chechnya and Kosovo, she became committed to the mission of recording the terrible suffering of civilians in conflict. She would do so dutifully, and dynamically, but at a heavy personal cost. When we first meet her in A Private War, Marie (Rosamund Pike) is relaxing at home in London with her boyfriend, and trying to live a normal life. That, however, is one task she has no flair for, and as soon as a conflict kicks off somewhere, she dons the flak jacket and heads for Heathrow. Her courage is extraordinary, and when she's embedded with Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, a blast from a rocket grenade destroys her left eye. She returns to London sporting a jaunty eye patch that only adds to her legend, and while some journalists would be put off by such a life-altering attack, Colvin is soon back out in the field.
Her sincerity in wanting to shine a light on pointless human suffering is absolutely genuine, but like a lot of war correspondents, Marie has also become addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat, or rather finds its absence intolerable. Visibly ill-at-ease at awards ceremonies and social functions, she feels more at home in war zones, in the company of battle-hardened journalists and photographers, one of whom is about to become her final partner in crime.
Liverpool photojournalist Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) first teams up with Marie in Iraq, and in 2012 agrees to accompany her on an extremely risky trip to war-torn Syria. Cut off from all foreign observers and besieged by Bashar al-Assad forces, the city of Homs is being bombarded day and night, and Colvin wants to go there to expose Assad’s lie that no civilians are being targeted. That she does, in a series of gripping articles and TV broadcasts, but ignores all calls to leave the city before it's too late.
Heineman has said that he did not want A Private War to be a biopic, but rather an account of the rising toll of Colvin's work. That it is, and the film proceeds in a fog of combat, building towards the dusty nightmare of Homs.
That dreadful battle is brilliantly recreated by Heineman and his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, and provides the film's most boldly cinematic moments. But in terms of Colvin herself, we're not really given enough to go on as we try to make sense of her life.
This is not the fault of Rosamund Pike, who throws herself fearlessly into Colvin's larger-than-life persona, smoking and boozing and swearing up a storm as she battles with her perfidious editor (Tom Hollander) and a recurring case of PTSD. But her suffering seems tinny, perhaps because it has no context: we're given no insight into her early life, or why she might have been so impelled to walk towards the gunfire.
As Paul Conroy, Dornan does his best to suppress the soft twangs of his Belfast accent, and Stanley Tucci (always a welcome sight) seems very amused by nothing in particular when he turns up as an amorous City of London investor type. But this is Pike's film, and her dedication and grit are to be commended. If only she'd been given a little bit more to work with.
Instant Family (12A, 118mins)
What if you could click your fingers and become the proud parents of an entire brood? That's exactly what happens to Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg in this salty, winning family comedy. When Pete and Ellie Wagner decide to adopt a kid, they bravely choose a chippy teenager called Lizzy (Isabela Moner), not realising she comes as a package. Lizzy, her shy 10-year-old brother Juan, and positively feral little sister Lita, have been bounced around foster homes, and Pete and Ellie have no idea what they're taking on. Byrne and Wahlberg are excellent, and the film skilfully blends low humour with a serious theme.
Happy Death Day 2U (15A, 100mins)
The modestly original 2017 film Happy Death Day combined Groundhog Day and Scream to create a cheerfully daft horror movie. College student Tree (Jessica Rothe) kept waking up on the morning of her birthday and getting murdered by the end of it, and had to figure out a way of escaping this ghastly time loop. In this frenetic but sometimes amusing sequel, her life seems to have moved to a happier place when the whole thing starts happening again. Happy Death Day 2U is even more frantically self aware than the original, and lays on the wacky humour pretty thick. But it trips over its own cleverness, and forgets to be scary.
The Kid Who Would be King (PG, 120mins)
Is this Joe Cornish film an extended Brexit metaphor? Quite possibly. While its 12-year-old protagonist Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) plods to school, TV screens tell us that Britain is heading for disaster. Alex isn't having much fun either, till he finds an ancient sword stuck in a breeze block and pulls it out. He's a reincarnated King Arthur, who must find a way of saving the land from the villainous Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). The juxtaposition of Arthurian legend and the shabby banality of modern Britain works rather nicely, and Cornish's film strikes a warm and pleasing tone.
Films coming soon...
On The Basis Of Sex (Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux); Cold Pursuit (Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, Tom Jackson); Capernaum (Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw).