Length: 143 minutes
Maturity: PG-13 (for intense thematic elements, language, and some sexuality)
Cast: Noemie Godin-Vigneau (Marie-Loup Carignan), David la Haye (Francois la Gardeur), Juliette Gosselin (France Carignan), Sebastian Huberdeau (Xavier Maillard), Bianca Gervais (Acoona), Gerard Depardieu (Fr. Thomas Blondeu), Tim Roth (William Pitt), Jason Isaacs (General James Wolfe), Michael Maloney (Governor James Murray), Philippe Dormoy (Voltaire)
Director: Jean Beaudin
Personal Rating: 2 Stars
One day, while fishing through the period piece section on NetFlix, I stumbled across Battle of the Brave. I sort of had a feeling it wasn't going to be good when I heard it was set during the French and Indian War (how could Hollywood keep from going on a splurge about evil Europeans and stuffy decorum?), but I wanted to see anyway. I’m not above being surprised by an unexpectedly good film. But my intuition proved more than correct this time, although I will admit I was surprised…by the blatant differences between the plot-line as outlined in the advertisements and how it played out in the actual production!
What story there is opens in Colonial French Canada, not long before the British conquest of Quebec in 1759. A young French nobleman named Francois la Gardeur has just returned from a trapping venture in the wilderness, a journey he had embarked upon to distance himself from his upper-class roots. Seeking out amour in Quebec, he rekindles an affair with a fellow nobleman’s wife, but at the same time finds himself bewitched by a beautiful and independent-minded young widow and single mother named Marie-Loup Carignan, who has learned to be a healer in the Native American tradition, and is accused of practicing dark magic.
Meanwhile, sinister historical forces are at work. The French government in Canada is riddled through with corruption, and willing to let Quebec fall to the British to prevent an inquiry into their conduct. It is up to our wild-haired hero Francois to warn the French government about the plot, but the local authorities will stop at nothing to silence him. Throw Fr. Thomas Blondeau, a Catholic priest who is sort-of-good in that he wants to defend the poor from the desperation of a crumbling regime and the rapine of an ascending one, and yet is having sexual affairs and has this secret love for would-be witch-woman...and the whole thing degenerates into a confusing mess!
Our noble messenger to the court of France sends a message to his lover, asking her to accompany him. But the priest, for motives that are a bit complex, mistranslated the message to keep her from going with him. This strikes off a chain reaction of unintended events…none of which are directly related to the war, nor the fact that Quebec falls to the British, without even enough production courtesy to show us the epic-ness of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham! Gah! But to summarize: “our hero” has a heart-to-heart chat with philosopher Voltaire, but fails to get an audience at the decadent court of France until after the British invasion is completed, and returns to discover that beloved witch-woman has gotten herself hitched to a his less-than-upstanding-former-friend-turned-British-lackey.
But never fear…Gallic Lover Boy is here! Actually, cancel that…we should fear, because it doesn’t seem he has any definite plan, and one he tries to launch to rescue his lady-love from her abusive husband backfires miserably. Ultimately, deadbeat hubby has an unfortunate collision with an axe, but no one is sure who administered the fatal blow. Marie-Loup gets arrested and framed for her husband’s murder, which everyone is content to let lie since she is already a social outcast. At this point, the two main men in her life – Francois and Fr. Blondeau – try to “save her” in different ways. The former makes a vain attempt to plead mercy before the new British Governor James Murray, and the second tries to give her absolution for the murder, which she refuses. It will only be at the end of the old man’s life when the truth will be revealed and the mysterious case laid to rest with Mary-Loup.
This film had some artistic pluses in the form of beautiful cinematography and a lush music score. It gave a good feel of the Colonial era of sprawling forests and Old World settlements, inhabited by a mix of different races struggling for survival and domination. The acting was fair enough, and the relationship between Mary-Loup and her little daughter France was touchingly rendered. Also, some of the romantic interplay between Francois and Mary-Loup was worth salvaging, even though their overall romance was pretty lame. David la Haye and Noemie Godin-Vigneau seemed to have good on-screen chemistry, and they have a talent for conveying emotions through facial expressions. And I will admit this much: the leading lady has amazingly bewitching eyes!
But in spite of these perks, the story was a horrible miss-match of themes and plot threads that failed to coalesce into any definite vision. It is permeated with modern sentiment jet-lagged into a past time period, with Francois and Mary-Loup serving as symbolic of liberalism and modernity as opposed to the narrow-minded, old-fashioned, and corrupt characters that surround and ultimately destroy them. In this sense, the whole story takes on the visage of a morality play, even though the morals are foggy at best.
It is not by accident that we see Francois “connect” with the ultimate liberal, Voltaire, after his repeated efforts to shake off his noble heritage which is portrayed as being corrupt overall. Needless to say, there certainly was corruption in the nobility, particularly among the French Colonial ruling class in Quebec. But portraying the upper classes as “all bad” just doesn’t do them justice. I would have liked to meet the Marquis de Montcalm, the epitome of a French gentleman, dedicated to honor, duty, and his country. So while we can sympathize with Francois’ issues to some extent, the movie fails to portray the pros-and-cons of the class system with balance.
Likewise, we can certainly sympathize with the more open and curious ways of Mary-Loup, and her willingness to learn the ways of the Native Americans through her friendship with the Indian girl, Acoona. But trying to make almost everyone else around her into 2-dimnsional villains fails to appreciate their own perspectives, and the “comfortableness” these characters would have had holding these beliefs in their own time periods. Plus, Mary-Loup does seem to be a bit “loose in love”, so to speak, and has adapted some of the superstitious practices associated with witch-craft, so even a few eye-brows raise, it’s not a huge wonder. And of course, there has to be a priest struggling with his vow of celibacy, in a kind of creepy way…I mean, isn’t he old enough to be Mary-Loup’s father? Weird.
Not only do the characters feel strangely out of place in their respective era, but Battle of the Brave doesn’t even live up to its own advertisement as a flick about French resistance fighters battling for “freedom.” Literally, on the cover there are three indicative words: “Rise. Unite. Fight.” But none of this ever comes about. There are no resistance fighters, and there is no battle! The war, which is supposed to be so central to the plot, is skipped through with nothing more than a shelling sequence, which kills a side character but does not influence the central plot. Instead, the story-line is totally hinged on the love affair, which reaches a dead-end and fails to support the movie with needed substance.
On an historical note, we do get to make a brief foray made into the British establishment, whence we get to meet Tim Roth (infamous for his role as Archie-the-Villain in Rob Roy) as William Pitt (no! no!!!) and a totally-too-old, totally-too-deranged Jason Isaacs (infamous for his role as Tavington-the-Villain in The Patriot!) as General James Wolfe (Say what???!!!) who fails to do anything impressive but rant about wildly and mutter poetry with a weird gleam in his eye. These blatant miscasts can be accurately classified as nothing more than a generic British villains convention, to purposely purport a politically correct and historically incorrect depiction of The French and Indian War.
As someone who has spent more than a few years studying Wolfe and pouring over his personal letters, I was particularly frustrated to death by this obtuse portrayal. I understand that the film may have been trying to paraphrase an incident in which Wolfe, slightly inebriated and out-of-character, is said to have bragged about what he would accomplish in America, and pounded his sword hilt on the table in front of Pitt. But the way it came off was that he was always behaving like a nut, and everything he did was viewed as off-beat by those around him, including poetic recitation. This fails to explain why the legend of Wolfe has been such an inspiration to fighting men for generations.
Wolfe was certainly a very complex character, who could often be judgmental and sometimes quite brutal. He also might have seemed a bit “manic” every once in a while. But this is only one side of the coin. A reading of his letters and the testimony of contemporaries also show him to also have had many attractive qualities, and was not some chronic maniac. He was deeply philosophical, had a marvelously witty sense of humor, and a profound sense of duty to his country and the men under his command. His soldiers adored him, and found his eccentricities inspirational, including his love of quoting poetry. Furthermore, memorization of poetry was much more common in the 18th century than it is now, and wouldn’t have even been considered as outlandish as it might be today.
The film also messed up the character of British governor James Murray, who is portrayed as being unscrupulous and willing to have Mary-Loup executed even though he has proof she is innocent of the murder of her husband. He doesn’t want to risk putting his job in danger by angering those who are stuck in the “dark ages” and opposed to modernistic Mary-Loup. First off, they got his accent wrong: He was Scottish, not English. Second, portraying him as a fall-back villain is character assassination, unless they have some sort of proof he actually behaved in this manner. Historically, the worse thing that can be said of him was that he was jealous of General Wolfe and gave him a hard time, but as governor of Quebec, he was known for being fairly compassionate to the plight of the inhabitants and proved himself to be an able and just administrator.
Basically, the history buff and story-lover in me was deeply disappointed by this goofed-up attempt to bring The French and Indian War to life on screen. With a predominately French cast and crew, I knew the chances of them being fair to the British were slim. But they even missed out on giving the French their proper due by getting hung up in too many soap-opera-esque love affairs and an obscure moral tags about the blessings of modernity, and the ill-fated consequences of intolerance, which is viewed as the ultimate evil in our modern age. I’m certainly not advocating it, but I think there are other vices to be brought to the fore as well, some perhaps not so politically correct…like character assassination in big-budget historical butcheries!
I’m afraid that I must make fanfare of tossing Battle of the Brave into the ceremonial fibrotic fire-pit with its kith and kin on the death-row shelf: The Last of the Mohicans, Titanic, The Patriot, Braveheart, Rob Roy, etc.! Judging from this illustrious accumulation of painful productions, I’d say it’s about time to have a smores fest! If I’m sarcastically harping on this subject too much for my educated readership, please bare with me. I really must write about how messed up I feel Hollywood is getting with these historical "epics", for my own sanity, and perhaps to better the planet. Perhaps it will rouse the masses to demand better fare...or something! Every little voice helps.
|Francois la Gardeur (David la Haye) rides with Mary-Loup Carignan ( Noemie Godin-Vigneau)|