Scholars still debate the details of the life of Joan of Arc, the teen-aged mystic who rose out of a farmyard to lead France to military victories in the 15th century. But her story has reached a level of iconography at which the facts hardly matter. She heard the word of God and it led her to great, improbable feats. The rest is merely down to interpretation.
French filmmaker Luc Besson, working with an American cast and a Hollywood budget in "The Messenger," inflates the historic events to epic proportions, delivering his version of the tale with a visceral impact that overshadows his less-impressive examination of the inner voices that comprised Joan's conscience.
Milla Jovovich, the lanky blonde with the otherworldly facial expressions, plays Joan (who died at age 19) with an aggressive mien that appropriately borders on the messianic. Storming the gates of Dauphin Charles VII (John Malkovich, at his silky, corrupt best), she announces her plan to restore the French crown to him and overturn the 1425 invasion of Orleans by the English.
Advised by his mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon (a hard-edged Faye Dunaway), that he has nothing to lose by granting Joan her wish, the Dauphin sends her off with his blessings. Joan's empathy with the common soldiers who are actually doing the fighting ultimately wins her a pair of victories; filled with fervor, she prepares to press on.
But after the Dauphin is crowned king, Joan becomes a threat to kingly power, and thus a liability. Court intrigue leads to her imprisonment, and it's here that Besson's story sheds its armor.
His rousing adventure halts for a soul-searching session between Joan and her envisioned moral compass (Dustin Hoffman, looking appropriately hoary). It's a tortuous journey of logic and illogic that ultimately undoes the poor peasant girl ... and the film.
Besson takes great notice of Joan's ultimate redemption by the Catholic Church, which made her a saint 500 years after she was burned at the stake as a heretic. But he doesn't gracefully balance her heroism with her unraveling, and it splits his movie into two unequal parts, the latter of which simply drags.
Still, the director of "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional" certainly knows his action: His battle scenes are brutally breathtaking. And his actors -- especially Jovovich -- deliver the goods.
Word has surfaced of historians niggling over the fine points of Besson's script (which was co-written with Andrew Birkin). Leave it to stodgy historians not to recognize entertaining, grand-scale historical drama when they see it.
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