A soured childhood friendship that diverges into two very different adult lives gets a cursory and somewhat unsatisfying dissection in Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons. While either of the adults under scrutiny might have made an interesting protagonist for a movie, dividing time between the two of them and including a framing story with one of the men’s sons drains away much of the flavor and color from what might otherwise have been a gripping narrative of souls struggling to make sense out of the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.
There Be Dragons (Blu-ray)
Directed by Roland Joffé
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 122 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish
Release Date: January 10, 2012
Review Date: January 10, 2012
Researching a book on Saint Josemaria Escrivå (Charlie Cox), writer Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) learns that his father Manolo (Wes Bentley) and Josemaria were childhood companions who went their separate ways as they grew up, one entering the priesthood and the other leaving the seminary after a year and going to work for the Fascists as a spy on the Communist side as the Spanish Civil War builds its momentum. Listening to some tapes left him by his father, Robert learns secrets about both men which lead him to a final confrontation with his dying father.
While the range and depth of the story writer-director Roland Joffé is attempting to tell is as vast and encompassing as his narrative in The Killing Fields, his most successfully realized film to date, the three separate stories being told here simply have no room to breathe in a two hour drama. The framing story could have been dropped altogether (though it provides an emotionally cathartic wrap-up not totally earned by what has come before), and either of the two stories – the saintly priest Josemaria’s attempting to escape undercover from the Fascists with various encounters which test his faith or the duplicitous Manolo’s spy work for the Fascists while falling in love with Communist freedom fighter Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko) who herself is already in love with their devoted leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro) – could have been used as the film’s core story. The lack of time also gets in the way of effective characterizations for the leading actors. Without the time to explore these fascinating men, their characters end up more one-note than they should have (this is especially true with Father Josemaria). Joffé does handle some of the battle scenes with great flair. The Battle of Madrid is beautifully mounted and shot casting the viewer directly into the line of fire and ably showing the frustration of the Communists who can’t understand how the Fascists know their every move. Joffé adds some self-consciously arty touches (a reflection in a toaster; the two schoolboys framed through individual lenses of a priest’s glasses on a table) that show his careful attention to detail, but more time might have been spent planning ways to keep the crisscrossing stories from sapping energy and attention from one another.
Both Charlie Cox and Wes Bentley are completely believable in their characterizations. Bentley has the richer role and gets to advance to old age (with some not especially good make-up effects), but both men strive hard to establish their personas saddled with the scattershot screenplay which not only breaks up the narrative flow of their performances but also often jumps back and forth in time adding further challenges for them to establish rapport for their characters. Dougray Scott comes up with genuinely warm emotions from very little credible motivation, a real achievement for his character. Rodrigo Santoro is very charismatic as the rebel leader though Olga Kurylenko has ups and downs as the Hungarian working hard for her beliefs. Derek Jacobi has a couple of effective scenes early on with the younger versions of the main characters as he teaches Josemaria a life lesson which stays with him always. Geraldine Chaplin and Charles Dance also turn up in brief but notable roles.
The film’s theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This tremendously warm and enticing transfer boasts superb sharpness and great amounts of detail. Color can be bountiful or a bit subdued depending on the sequences being pictured, but flesh tones are always realistic and appealing. Black levels are outstanding, and shadow detail first rate. In fact, except for some blooming whites in a hospital scene, the transfer is without flaw. The film has been divided into 28 chapters.
[Reviewer’s Note: In the review copy used for this critique, chapters 20 and 21 had pixilation issues on both Blu-ray players used for viewing.]
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix gains in impressiveness as the film runs. There is a subtle lack of ambient surround activity in the film’s first forty-five minutes, but once the Battle of Madrid begins, the surround levels are more attuned to what is happening on the screen. Stephen Warbeck’s dynamic score stretches across the front soundstage to good effect and wraps insinuatingly into the surrounds for a nicely comprehensive spread. Dialogue is well recorded and is mostly relegated to the center channel though there is some subtle directionalized dialogue. The battle scenes make exacting use of the subwoofer.
“Facing Your Dragons” is a 4-minute confessional by actor Wes Bentley who proclaims that working on this film provided an epiphany for him to turn his life around. It’s in 1080p.
There are fifteen deleted scenes which are collected together in a 31-minute montage and presented in 480i.
The disc offers promo trailers for Fox’s World Cinema series, In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds, Another Earth, and Atlas Shrugged Part I.
3/5 (not an average)
There Be Dragons is an interesting but not quite successful blend of biography and fictionalized storytelling that is too ambitious for its own good. A master director is saddled with his own imperfect script, but the stories even in decimated formmake for an interesting look and listen.