Apparently unable to figure out their own motion picture, the writer and director of Beyond Borders, intentionally or not, have produced a reasonably rare specimen, an almost perfectly ambiguous work. The movie constantly alternates subject and style, atmosphere and tone, emotion and theme, in an uncomfortable and generally unsatisfactory rhythm, first attempting one story, one genre, one approach, then abruptly switching to another. The clumsy and uncoordinated alternations produce a sentimental and occasionally incredible plot that hardly justifies the characters' windy speeches or consciously noble behaviors.
In keeping with its air of naive artifice, the picture opens with a sequence right out of myth, legend, and fairy tale. An angry intruder crashes an elegant charity ball, haranguing the crowd about famine and disease in refugee camps in Africa, attacking their materialism and comfort, and challenging them to invest their money and themselves in truly improving the lot of the poor, the sick, and the starving. The intruder, Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) so deeply moves Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie), the American wife of a wealthy Englishman (Linus Roache), that she cleans out her bank accounts, purchases food and medical supplies, and travels to Callahan's camp in Ethiopia to help in any way she can.
That journey and her experience there permanently transform Sarah's life. Observing the appalling conditions of the camp, the hunger and pain of the people, their betrayal by a corrupt government, and the heroic struggles of the camp personnel, she decides to devote herself to improving the human condition in places so dreadfully devastated and hostile that human life itself seems miracle enough. She also falls in love with Nick Callahan, which nicely combines her commitment to her new vocation with the romance that the film's publicity so insistently stresses.
The picture covers more than a decade, taking up Sarah's story at various intervals, as she returns to London to work for humanitarian relief with the United Nations, bears a son and a daughter, and more or less falls out of love with her husband. Keeping in contact with Nick and his co-workers, she monitors the progress of his efforts, eventually traveling to see him under United Nations auspices (in company with the usual load of food and medicine) to a couple of war-torn regions, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and Chechnya before the United States changed sides in the region's conflict with Russia.
On those journeys she repeatedly witnesses the manifold sufferings of the impoverished and displaced, and their apparently endless victimization at the hands of armed militias, bandits, and tyrannical governments. Unfortunately, by the third time we see her bouncing in a Land Rover over some rocky roads in hostile territory, the pattern comes to seem at least a bit comical.
The many years the film encompasses, the locations on three continents, and the sheer size of the whole endeavor may qualify Beyond Borders as the epic its publicity trumpets --- it clearly exhibits the necessary amplitude of time and space --- but the confusion of themes tends to blunt any potential epic power. The panorama of human misery against which the script displays the odd and sporadic romance generally overwhelms the love story, turning it into a trivial and perfunctory business occupying a small space in the foreground. Although the script at least confronts the reality of a tragic ending, it also settles for a good deal of sentimentality along the way.
Fresh from the athletic activity and skintight outfit of the Lara Croft flicks, Angelina Jolie retains a quite inappropriate movie-star glamour even in the arid landscape of Ethiopia, the sweltering jungle of Cambodia, and the frigid wastes of Chechnya. It's simply difficult to believe her as a sort of secular missionary for the United Nations.
Her love interest, Clive Owen, resembles some rugged, brooding, fiery leading man of the cinematic past, ranting and cursing and overacting like some ancient Shakespearean on a bad night, say the young Laurence Olivier at his worst or even Orson Welles tanked up on his own ego. Despite the protestations of the script and the demands of the story, their purported passion never really strikes any sparks or transcends the perfunctory and automatic routines of any weak melodrama.
Despite its several problems and its sheer bloated excessiveness, Beyond Borders at least provides something of a platform for an undeniably worthy goal, the dramatizing of the ongoing suffering of untold millions of people in the world most of us so comfortably inhabit.
The script apparently inspired Jolie herself to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which earned her an award from the Secretary General. If the movie encourages others to consider the plight of their fellow human beings and even act to improve their lives, perhaps it will then achieve some level of success beyond its dubious achievement as art.
Beyond Borders, starring Angelina Jolie, Clive Owen, Teri Polo, Linus Roache, Noah Emmerich, Yorick Van Wageningen, Elizabeth Whitmere; written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen; directed by Martin Campbell. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.
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