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THE MESSENGER:  THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman
Director:  Luc Besson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Documentary, Trailers, Talent Files, Isolated Music Score
Length:  158 Minutes
Release Date:  April 4, 2000

Film ***1/2

The aspect of Luc Besson’s film The Messenger (aka Joan of Arc in this, the full international version) that most critics panned it for was the exact reason why I liked it:  it spent more time focusing on the heroine’s incredible feats on the field of battle than on her trial and execution.  There have been many films, like Dreyer’s excellent The Passion of Joan of Arc that have chronicled her final hours.  But French director Besson realized with his film a chance to celebrate the life, legend, and accomplishments of the young Maid of Orleans, rather than focusing on her dismal final hours and earthly defeat.

Which is not to say that Besson glosses over or hurries through the unpleasantness that lead to her death at the stake.  This film is long, and as such, finds room to encompass all parts of the story.  And really, to fully understand the horror or to appreciate the hypocrisy of her execution, one really should see the Joan that rode home in triumph over the invading English.

We first meet Joan as a young girl, and learn that even at a tender age, she experienced heavenly visions and possessed a strong devotion to her faith.  She lived in a time of turmoil, when her native homeland of France existed under English rule established by the strong Henry V.  Now, under the weaker rule of Henry VI, France is beginning to fight back.  The results are not always successful.

At age seventeen, Joan (Jovovich) appears before Charles, the Dauphin of France (Malkovich) to tell him of her visions.  She believes she has been chosen by God to deliver France from her enemies, and thus securing the reign of Charles as the next king.  She asks for armies, and the bewildered leader gives them to her, though some in his court advise against it.

The soldiers are not inspired by the thought of a young girl leading them into war.  Joan proves she is one of them by cutting her hair short, then proceeds to lead the troops in some of the most impressive old style battle sequences since Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.  And time and time again, when it looks like she might not know what she’s doing, she and her men triumph.  In one of the film’s best scenes, she stands before the English army and beckons them to leave peacefully, with her battle weary French behind her.  Incredibly, they back away.  They had seen enough of what Joan could do.

But of course, we all know the story doesn’t end there.  Joan’s visions and deeds were a threat to the foreign invaders, but more so, they were a threat to those so-called “men of God” and their rigid beliefs.  Under their extensive sessions of torture and investigation, Joan would either have to recant her stories, or be burned.

These late scenes are given a new twist by the presence of Dustin Hoffman in a mysterious role.  He appears before her like a phantom when she is alone, and in a low, ethereal voice, questions her resolve, her visions, her loyalty.  We don’t know until the very end whether his character is an instrument of good or evil.

Initially, I balked at the thought of Milla Jovovich portraying one of history’s most legendary and enigmatic women, simply because I’d never seen her in a role that would suggest her capable of such a challenge.  I admit, I also thought she was too pretty, and that would be a distraction.  I was completely wrong.  Though I’m still not certain why a French director would cast an American star for such a patriotic icon, the choice was good.  Jovovich shines, bringing an incredible amount of emotional reality to the role.  She never shies away from the complexity of the character’s confusion versus conviction, her fear versus her courage, her loyalty versus her pride.  It is a remarkable accomplishment.

What Joan accomplished in two short years was nothing short of miraculous, and it is clear that the filmmakers firmly believe she was indeed guided by God in her actions.  I’m glad, therefore, that this movie takes the time and space necessary to celebrate the life of Joan of Arc, rather than only mourn her tragic death.

Video ***

Not much in the way of complaints here…Columbia Tri Star delivers a quality anamorphic transfer that ranges from very good to outstanding.  The print is free of nicks and scars, and without noticeable grain or compression artifacts.  Brightly lit scenes are gorgeous, with sharp images and excellent color rendering.  A few lower light images lose color containment just a touch, and show a bit more softness, particularly in deep focus shots.  There is a tendency also to show a slight red “flicker” outside of the widescreen image in the lower black bar, something I haven’t seen from CST in a long time, but definitely noticed at least three or four times here…not distracting, but worth reporting.  All in all, what’s good about the transfer more than outweighs the minor flaws, and the overall image rates highly satisfactory.

Audio ****

Outstanding!  This is one of the most consistently ambient 5.1 soundtracks I’ve heard.  For starters, the score is incredible, and during its many dramatic moments, the orchestration is spread nicely around all channels, so that certain instruments are always chiming in from the rear speakers.  The film’s many battle and crowd oriented scenes also make full use of all channels, including some rather ethereal effects where a slightly delayed echo of shouted words can be heard deep in the rear channels.  And what the sound people did with Dustin Hoffman’s voice is also an achievement.  The .1 channel has plenty to do throughout the movie, too, adding a distinct rumbling to the battles and other necessary scenes.  The mix is solid and well balanced throughout…a remarkable listening experience.

Features ***  

The disc contains an excellent half hour HBO First Look special featuring Milla Jovovich, a handful of trailers, talent files, and a score-only audio option, which, given the music’s terrific use of the 5.1 system, is a nice treat.

Summary:

The Messenger is a film about faith and courage in the face of many kinds of enemies, and stands as a wonderful tribute to an amazing young girl who, with great conviction, stood before all who would destroy her without backing down.  This is a terrific, passionate epic on a great DVD…not to be missed.