An Epic Shrug, by Scott Nye
There are two very difficult, and seemingly unrelated, things to pull off in cinema – the framing device and telling the story of a virtuous man. The framing device is when you couch a story from the past, in this case the story of Josemaria Escrivia, the founder of Opus Dei (don’t worry, I’d never heard of him either), in some sort of present conflict. This is almost always done using the diaries of a dead or dying relative (think The Bridges of Madison County or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) through which their children discover new aspects of their parent’s life, a parent who they’ve had some difficulty connecting to over the years but slowly gain a greater understanding and love for over the course of the story that you, in the end, don’t really care all that much about.
The framing device in There Be Dragons is one that works quite well in literature, but often poorly onscreen. The contemporary action feels dead compared to the romance of the past, and has no dynamic energy because it typically involves two or more people sitting in a room talking or, worse, reading to each other. The contemporary story has no immediacy because we don’t know who these people are at all, and by the end only understand one of them any better. And since film is by its very nature a narrative art form built around immediacy – novels get away with it because you’re essentially being told a story from the moment you open the book, but film is unfolding right in front of you – it takes an especially canny filmmaker to figure out how to tell the emotion of the story rather than focus on the characters or certainly the plot. Otherwise it’s all just one big flashback.
So imagine my excitement when There Be Dragons starts and we find out that someone’s father has a secret journal and it’s filled with all these secrets about not only his own life, but that of his childhood best friend who grew up to be a saint. And here’s where we find the second problem – portraying virtuous people in film, or any narrative form. It’s really, really hard. They come off as stiff, are difficult to relate to, and are a little boring – how dynamic is a character who always does the right thing? And in this case, telling the story of the founder of Opus Dei that is produced by a member of Opus Dei…you can fill in the rest.
Charlie Cox, as Escrivia, gives one of the more convincing performances of virtuosity, but he’s still essentially playing the role of “good” while everyone around him is either “follower,” “conflicted,” or “bad.” Joffe takes the easiest route possible to find sympathy for Josemaria – persecute him! Have him go through hell and come out the other side, literally. I mentioned earlier that these sorts of stories, couched in a framing device, are best served to tell the emotion of the story rather than the story itself, but that’s different from being simplistic about it. There is very little emotion to be found when the battle lines are so clearly drawn.
But the thrust of the film is still, bizarrely enough, focused on Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) researching Josemaria through his father’s diaries, and thus the film spends way too much time on the father, Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley). The intersection of these three people is incidental at best, and the thematic overlap is almost nonexistent. It’s an ensemble film, but only insofar as it’s about a lot of people – their stories, when placed against one another, have very little to do with each other, and reach no unified conclusion. It’s messy, and without purpose.
Bentley’s an intense cinematic presence, and I don’t reflexively hate the guy. But he is undeniably creepy, and Joffe can’t quite find his footing between making his character unlikeable and giving us a reason for watching him, either as an old man or a young one. Scott, meanwhile, is nearly blank onscreen, and given the very tired role of “son who isn’t sure if he’s ready to love his father,” brings little to distinguish the role.
Joffe’s direction is similarly mannered – pretty, but not arresting. Acute, but unfocused. I can’t really imagine what motivation is would take to justify the shot in which the camera travels through a freeze-frame, but in opening with it, Joffe is not the one to discover it.