Emotional Drought 

Timeliness alone can't make this workmanlike drama about a wife's search for her missing photojournalist husband blossom.

With "Harrison's Flowers," French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui painstakingly recreates the hell that was Croatia — a surreal killing field where lives were extinguished on a whim. He just doesn't do it very well. Fitfully gripping, the drama falters between a travelogue to hell and a solid B-movie weepie. While it cannot help but strike an emotional chord, it's basically a Lifetime Channel soap opera with graphic violence.

Andie MacDowell stretches her acting muscles as Sarah, who like her photojournalist hubby, Harrison (David Strathairn), works for Newsweek. As the movie opens, a fulfilled Harrison tells his editor that he's ready to retire to his greenhouse. Strong-armed into one last assignment, Harrison agrees to cover some "ethnic skirmishes" in Yugoslavia.

Things quickly deteriorate into a full-fledged civil war, and Harrison is presumed dead in a collapsed building, though his body is never recovered. When a fleeting image on TV news footage appears to be her husband, Sarah's desperate search begins. With nothing more than her love to help her, Sarah leaves her children with relatives and flies straight into the Serbo-Croatian war.

As one would expect, what she discovers is that war isn't just hell, it's 30 different kinds of hell: A Croatian woman who gives Sarah a lift is executed before her eyes. Shells explode everywhere. Snipers abound. Soldiers rape and shoot first; ask questions later. But Sarah is determined to press on, enlisting the help of two other photographers: Kyle (an overly angry Adrien Brody) and Stevenson (an amusing, assured Brendan Gleeson). Presumably ashamed of their own fears, the two men drive Sarah directly into the vortex of ethnic hate and cleansing known as Vukovar, where she believes the video was shot that held the image of her husband.

But why exactly do these two men ignore their fears and agree to accompany Sarah through the fierce fighting? That's just one of the movie's many unsolved mysteries. Another is why Sarah would abandon her two young and suddenly fatherless children to undertake such a deadly quest. Sadly, we might not be asking such questions if a more accomplished actress were playing Sarah. While MacDowell definitely tries hard and certainly deserves credit for attempting such a difficult role, she's still woefully not up to the task. Though limited in his screen time and the emotional range required, Strathairn delivers a credible performance as a man ready to leave the adrenaline rush to younger, unencumbered photojournalists.

Director Chouraqui stages some horrifically harrowing battle scenes that compare favorably with similar sequences in much more expensive movies such as "Black Hawk Down" and "Behind Enemy Lines." But he loses ground in all the scenes staged in America (though actually shot in Prague), falling victim to that cultural tone-deafness which pervades foreign-made films about Americans. Another weird occurrence in "Harrison's Flowers" is that two-thirds of the way through the film, a minor character played by Elias Koteas spontaneously begins narrating the action off-screen. No doubt this is an attempt to help sort out the plot, but one wonders for whom? Could it be the filmmaker? S


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