By Caryn James | James on Screens December 20, 2011 at 9:35AM
For years, it has been easy to dismiss Angelina Jolie as an extremely beautiful flake. Even her work for humanitarian causes could seem like the image-burnishing, manic-y upside of her earlier, darker bad-girls days. Not anymore. In the Land Of Blood and Honey, which she wrote and directed, is a surprising triumph in so many ways. I have to say, I completely underestimated her.
The film is not some celebrity vanity project, but an astute, dramatically gripping work set against the horrors of the Bosnian War. More than a war story, it is even more about how sex and power intersect with global politics. And if you’ve read any of the grumbling about the plot – a romance between a Muslim woman and the Serbian soldier who is also her captor - you’ll be relieved to find that the film is deeply feminist. Of all the atrocities committed during the Bosnian conflict, Jolie chose to focus on the sexual violence against women.
It’s impossible to separate the film from its starry director. This grim story with a no-name cast might never have been made without her clout behind it. But from the time the film begins, we are immersed in a such fully realized world that we can forget who brought it to the screen in the first place.
For all it ambition, In the Land of Blood and Honey is decidedly, deliberately mainstream, though. Jolie brings all her commercial instincts to this artistic project, expertly balancing the fast-paced action of war with a sense of character. At the start, we see the Serbian Danijel (Goran Kostic) and the Muslim Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) dancing together at a club, when a fierce explosion tears the room, and their lives, apart. The war begins, and soon Ajla and her sister, the single mother of a baby, are rounded up by Serbian soldiers and sent to an isolated prison camp.
These early scenes are among the most horrifying. The next time Danijel and Ajla meet, he is about to rape her - part of the assembly line of Serbian soldiers attacking their prisoners - until he recognizes her. He becomes her protector; at times he actually seems gentle and concerned. She becomes devoted to him. But this is no Romeo and Juliet story about lovers from warring families. Their attachment is less obvious and far less straightforward than it seems. Jolie never gives us access to their private thoughts, and so keeps us off-guard, wondering what the relationship is really about. It’s impossible to discuss that question without giving away too much, but there is a big reveal and a stunner of an ending.
Throughout, Jolie is shrewd enough to let the characters and their relationship carry the weightier issues; the film never becomes a political lecture. When Danijel says of the Serbian “ethnic cleaning” that “It’s politics, not murder,” and Ajla argues, “It’s murder for political gain,” that’s one of the few scenes in which the script articulates its heavier themes. More often we see Danijel insisting to his father, a ruthless Serbian general, that he is devoted to their cause, while we’re left to wonder: is he lying to his father, or Ajla, or himself?
There are some problems with the script, which relies on movie-ready coincidences. Characters get lost and circle back to each so often, by the end you may think there were no more than a dozen people in the war. That kind of melodrama undermines the deeper, genuine drama. But to quibble with that is to say that Jolie’s film is so good, you wish it were that much better.
Shot in Budapest, the film is visually precise and evocative. Dean Semler’s cinematography (he shot Road Warrior among many others) and Jon Hutman’s production design create a sand-colored world of stone and rubble, yet convey a sense of the civilization that rubble has replaced.
Jolie, of course, has the resources to surround herself with great advice. But not every star director has the sense and modesty to take it. Whatever her next move, Jolie has transformed herself into a serious, accomplished filmmaker. No flake could do that.