I don’t know about you, but I often come across things that look toweringly silly and almost indisputably a Bad Idea, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this ever happen? Who thought this was in any way a good idea?’ All this shows, of course, is the strangeness that hindsight sometimes lends. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea of an $85m, all-star retelling of of the story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, co-written by the screenwriter of Slade in Flame, and directed by Luc Besson, sounds like an unstoppable disaster in the making. But people clearly thought otherwise in 1999, when such a film was made.
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is… well, I’m tempted to say that it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Besson-helmed historical drama, but one of the things I’ve found myself coming back to again and again recently is how frequently your expectations of Luc Besson turn out to be misguided. This is the film which effectively put a stop to Besson’s late-90s career as someone with serious clout in Hollywood, and was indeed followed by a five-year gap in his directorial career, and – possibly this is hindsight again – neither of these things is really a total surprise.
The film is, obviously, set during the Hundred Years War, when the English were doing their best to take over France (I don’t see the problem with this, but Besson clearly feels differently), with things not going too well for the home team. The opens by introducing us to the young Joan (Jane Valentine, who’s actually pretty good), a young girl who is clearly in the grip of some kind of religious obsession, going to church several times a day and claiming to hear voices.
An attack on the village by marauding English soldiers results in the death of Joan’s sister, who gives up her hiding place for Joan, and she is understandably left traumatised, struggling to understand why God would permit this to happen, and why she should be spared and not her sister.
Some years pass before Joan, now in her late teens, presents herself at the court of the French Dauphin (John Malkovich), asking to be given an army so she can carry out God’s will and give the English the kicking they so clearly deserve. The court are, understandably, dubious, but they’re out of other ideas and Joan does seem to have a strange, otherworldly quality. And so she is given an army, and sent off to lift the siege of Orleans, not yet suspecting that she is an idealist in a deeply political world…
This is a long film (though not, perhaps, quite as long as it sometimes feels while you’re actually watching it) and almost Kubrickian in the way it naturally falls into a number of episodes, each with its own tone and style. Some of them are, needless to say, better than others, and none of them are really what you could call great. The opening sequence, with the young Joan having her first visions, is one of the best, with Besson conjuring up a real impression of ecstatic religious mania, as well as suggesting some serious issues such as survivor’s guilt.
Of course, the thing which sets the opening apart is that it doesn’t feature Milla Jovovich, and if you had to identify one thing that really scuppers The Messenger it’s the casting of Jovovich in the lead role. Joan of Arc runs a very broad gamut of emotions in the course of the film, at various points appearing as an innocent warrior, a holy fool, someone who experiences the heights of joy and the depths of horror and self-doubt. Jovovich’s performance largely consists of rolling her eyes a lot and squeaking. A goldfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench would be less out of its depth than Milla Jovovich is here.
This is a bit of a shame, as – while you could hardly describe The Messenger as a completely coherent film – there are a lot of other things to enjoy here. Parts of the film are recognisably Bessonian in their stylish excess – the English soldiers are presented as enjoying a spot of casual necrophilia – and when the lengthy battle scenes get under way, you do get a sense of a director back in his comfort zone. There is a lot of mud, and crunch, and gore, and what they perhaps lack in scale they make up for in viscera. Even here, though, there’s a thin line between grisly, authentic spectacle, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the film is often closer to the latter than is perhaps comfortable.
Here and elsewhere, many fine actors from many different countries do their best to try and make up for the Jovovich deficit: Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Faye Dunaway, and many other familiar faces. There is an authentic touch of the medieval grotesque about much of the film, and this extends to the performances too. John Malkovich, on the other hand, is at his most John Malkovichy as the aspiring king of France, who isn’t exactly sympathetically presented by the film (I suppose French film-makers will obviously have a different attitude to their royals than British ones).
Then again, it’s very hard to sympathise with Joan herself, though this is largely down to the Jovovich effect. What really doesn’t help is a conceit where Joan’s growing self-doubts manifest in the form of a shadowy figure with whom she engages in deep philosophical discussions about her beliefs and motives. He is played by Dustin Hoffman, who is obviously pretty good, but given all the eye-rolling and squeaking he’s acting against, an idea which could have seemed bold and imaginative just comes across as bizarre and even silly.
This is a slight shame, as Joan’s wrestling with her self-doubt (realised through the metaphor of the Hoffman character) really makes up the climax of the film – the concluding bonfire isn’t really dwelt upon, possibly wisely, but this does rob the film of a strong finish. One is left with a sense of a very odd film. In many ways this is a film which was ahead of its time – it anticipates the historical-combat-movie revival spawned by Gladiator only a year or so later, and attempts to say things about the uneasy alliance of politics and religious zealotry in wartime (topical indeed). It may ultimately be a failure, but you can’t fault its ambition.