It’s the bad luck of Martin Campbell’s ambitious saga to appear so soon after “In This World,” Michael Winterbottom’s brutally realistic, gritty account of the efforts of two Afghan refugees to make their way across Asia and Europe to enter England illegally. By concentrating on their story, it personalized, in a remarkably powerful and compelling way, the plight of Third World people in circumstances of devastating want and deprivation. “Beyond Borders” is also set against a backdrop of human misery in world trouble spots–specifically Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya–but uses the locales merely as an excuse to present an old-fashioned love story between two westerners who devote their lives to aiding the unfortunate masses racked by war, pestilence and famine. To build what amounts to an elaborate soap opera on such a foundation seems crass and meretricious after the white-hot idealism of the earlier film. Winterbottom’s passion to make us sense the desperation of characters seemingly far removed from us has been replaced by a glitzy effort to interest us in the passion of a couple of privileged do-gooders who sublimate their reluctant attraction for one another in service to the less fortunate. The glossiness of the result, ironically, makes it feel all the more tawdry.
The focus of Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s script is Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie), an American woman married to Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), the well-to-do son of a British gent (Timothy West) who heads up a fund-raising group. We’re introduced to her in the mid-eighties, when idealistic doctor Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) crashes one of their benefit soirees to berate the foundation for cutting off support for his Ethiopian camp because of the country’s communist ties. Though Jolie’s stiff, inexpressive face registers little, Sarah responds by spending her savings on supplies for the camp and taking them there herself. Her time in Ethiopia has some affecting moments–particularly those centering on an emaciated child whom she rescues in a spurt of western maternalism–but most of the episode (like her playing–badly, one should note–the Traumerei from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” on an old piano she finds there) is arch and affected, and the chemistry between the two stars is virtually nil. Skip ahead a half-decade and Sarah is a U.N. relief agent, approached by Callahan’s good-natured, diplomatic partner Elliott (Noah Emmerich) to sponsor a shipment of supplies for a camp the good doctor is now running in war-torn Cambodia. She agrees and accompanies the goods there, whereupon the group gets caught in the fighting between the Vietnamese-affiliated government and Khymer Rouge guerillas. (There’s a brutal confrontation with a government officer, followed by an even worse one with a vicious Khymer leader who threatens a darling baby with a hand grenade.) Six years later we find Sarah pining for Nick from afar, and deciding to go find him after he disappears in Chechnya. Her involvement with the rebels who are holding him captive leads to tragedy, but also (due to a twist that proves the intensity of feeling between them) a sort of rebirth.
One can imagine this scenario serving as the basis for an overripe TV miniseries, if the networks were still making such things, and in its way the picture also resembles the sort of glossy women’s flick that Ross Hunter used to produce for Lana Turner. It’s certainly been handsomely mounted and is well photographed by Phil Meheux. But it’s as haltingly directed as Hunter’s films ever were, Jolie is as stilted as a latter-day Turner, and Owen, who was so quietly intense in “Croupier,” is encouraged to overemote here to an alarming degree. (In his defense, however, one has to point out that Dr. Callahan is drawn as such a hot-tempered, self-righteous loose cannon that it would be impossible to make him either credible or sympathetic.) The supporting cast is pretty unimpressive across the board, too, with Roache and Emmerich barely getting by and Teri Polo and Yorick Van Wageningen going for the broadest strokes as Sarah’s journalist sister and a shady CIA operative, respectively.
In fact, the only way in which “Beyond Borders” works at all is as a mini fashion-show. (The same was often true of the Hunter efforts.) Miss Jolie models an elegant ball gown in the first reel, and then dons a flowing white outfit that looks great against the Ethiopian desert. (Remember how beautiful Lawrence of Arabia’s snowy tunic appeared in a similar environment?) Her clothes in the Cambodian segment are less memorable, though what appears to be a dark pants suit catches the eye; but the black trousers and coat she dons for the Chechnya trip certainly set off her slim (even vaguely anorexic) figure, even if the little Russian fur cap she wears comes across as a bit absurd.
But one can admire–or analyze–the costume design only so long; the fun soon pales. This slickly superficial epic ultimately degrades the important subject it cavalierly employs as mere background matter for its centerpiece romance. In dealing with life-and-death issues “Beyond Borders” never goes beneath the surface, and so is pretty much beyond redemption.