Dreary and desiccated, “Harrison’s Flowers” dies on the vine. Though it centers on a subject– the wars that attended the dismemberment of Yugoslavia–that has served some previous films (“Welcome to Sarajevo,” “No Man’s Land”) well, it doesn’t share their excellence. While it doesn’t simply use the horrible conflict as a backdrop for comic-book heroics (for that, one has to turn to the recent “Behind Enemy Lines”), it nonetheless cheapens it by focusing not on the locals who suffer its effects, but on a couple of Americans–a waylaid photojournalist and the anxious wife who goes to the Balkans to search for him. By doing so, it shunts the larger catastrophe to the side and instead becomes a sudsy marital melodrama; worse, it doesn’t even manage to make that domestic tale particularly compelling.
The story centers on a New York couple–Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn), a Newsweek photographer, and his wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell), who also works at the magazine. He’s an amateur horticulturist with a greenhouse in the backyard–a preoccupation which serves as a metaphor when he’s lost in Croatia and presumed dead by all but his devoted wife (the family keeps his buds blooming while he’s gone, you see); but his frequent absences from home strain his relationship not only with his wife, but also with their two young children (indeed, from what we see at the start, their home life seems decidedly gloomy). Though Harrison tells his editor (Alun Armstrong) that he wants to curtail the dangerous travels, the latter persuades him to undertake one more assignment–in Croatia–before doing so. Soon he disappears in the midst of the combat, and everyone assumes that he’s been killed–except, of course, for Sarah, who goes off on her own into the war zone to find him. In the Balkans she ultimately falls in with three other photographers– manic Kyle Morris (Adrien Brody), world-weary Marc (Brendan Gleeson) and world-famous Yeager Pollack (Elias Koteas), who’s obviously in love with her–while stumbling through a series of close calls and horrifying circumstances before working her way to a heavily-damaged hospital where she discovers the truth about her spouse’s fate.
Theoretically this scenario could have served to make a powerful and moving film–for example, Roger Spootiswoode’s “Under Fire” from 1983, set against the backdrop of the Nicaraguan civil war, superbly joined together the story of three foreign reporters with incisive political observation. But “Harrison’s Flowers” isn’t in the same league. The script doesn’t even attempt to explain the causes of the Croatian conflict, and though it manages some briefly harrowing images of the cruel carnage, the local victims are never successfully individualized. The focus instead is almost exclusively on the foreign observers, and to tell the truth they’re a pretty dull crew. Harrison’s a dour, verbally uncommunicative sort, whom Strathairn portrays in what seems a perpetual funk (he appears to show more affection for his rare plants than his kids). Sarah’s even more poorly drawn; it’s difficult to sympathize in the first place with an obsessed woman who’s willing to abandon her children and put herself in jeopardy on what seems a quixotic quest, but it’s virtually impossible to believe that so unprepared and inept a person would have survived a day in such an environment, let alone live to tell about it. MacDowell doesn’t help matters by giving a terribly one-note performance: as shown here, Sarah seems permanently dazed and shell-shocked, and the moments when she’s forced into action mode are simply ludicrous (one scene of MacDowell crawling across a field and rolling down a hillside in camouflage gear is literally ludicrous). Harrison’s rival photojournalists prove no more persuasive. Brophy’s all-too-frenzied attitude is more irritating than compelling (it’s a showy, flamboyant turn), and Gleeson’s patented pessimism is all too familiar. Koteas survives best by underplaying, which is probably the wisest course under the circumstances. Structurally the film is problematical, too. Writer-director Elie Chouraqui never manages to clarify even the topography of the story, let alone draw good performances from his cast; and he and his fellow scripters demonstrate their ineptitude about thirty minutes from the close, when they figuratively throw up their hands in frustration at being unable to dramatize things by abruptly introducing narration to explain what’s going on. This serves only to italicize obvious points, such as the heavy-handed titular analogy.
When you get right down to it, “Harrison’s Flowers” amounts to a simple-minded reversal of the final meeting of Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca.” Bogart’s Rick, you’ll remember, persuaded Bergman’s Ilsa to escape with her husband by telling her that their problems didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to what was going on around them. Here the mountain of the Yugoslav war is virtually turned into a background molehill against which the fate of two pallid westerners is portrayed as all-important. By the sappy denouement you might find this intellectually disreputable as well as dramatically ineffectual.