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'Harrison's Flowers'

'Harrison's Flowers' tracks a photojournalist to Croatia

Friday, March 15, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Harrison's Flowers." Sounds like an HGTV series, instead of a movie about a woman who plunges into war-ravaged Yugoslavia in search of her husband. Its carnage, in fact, is far worse than the killing depicted in "We Were Soldiers."

 
 
'Harrison's Flowers'

RATING: R for strong war violence and gruesome images, pervasive language and brief drug use.

STARRING: Andie MacDowell, Adrien Brody, David Strathairn

DIRECTOR: Elie Chouraqui

WEB SITE: www.harrisons
-flowers.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

It opens in New Jersey in October 1991, as Newsweek photojournalist Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn) is just back from Africa. He's married to a photo editor named Sarah (Andie MacDowell) and the father of two young children.

Harrison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer whose passions include his greenhouse flowers. Worried his "luck bank is down to zero," he tells his editor he's giving up combat duty. His boss asks him to hang on for a while and he'll find him something "safe, cushy and overpaid."

Although Harrison is revered by most of the press, one young photographer -- Kyle Morris (Adrien Brody) -- unloads on him during an awards ceremony honoring the man (Elias Koteas) who made the defining Tiananmen Square photo.

Nursing a grudge and a bandaged hand (and snorting a little coke), Kyle accuses Harrison and his fellow big-time shooters of traveling first class with "fancy cameras and hotel rooms" and then giving each other prizes.

All of that changes when Harrison is sent to Croatia and, the Red Cross reports, caught in a house that collapses. Sarah is told he is dead, but his body will not be returned. She feels in her gut, however, that her husband is alive.

Sarah leaves for Austria, where she rents a car and heads toward Yugoslavia. In her first close encounter with soldiers, Sarah's car is destroyed and she witnesses a man being shot in the head. She is cuffed in the face and nearly raped.

She's thought dead when a crew of photographers finds her face down on the road. One of her rescuers is none other than Kyle, who tells her she cannot stay in the country. But Sarah insists on making her way to Vukovar, and Kyle and an Irish photographer (Brendan Gleeson) stick by her side, along with an old friend they encounter along the way.

"Harrison's Flowers" is a better war movie than a love story, even if Sarah is propelled by a desire to find her husband -- dead or alive. The movie barely gives us a chance to know Strathairn's character, so this is a showcase for MacDowell, who summons the necessary grit and determination. Brody showboats a bit, but embodies the young, hungry photographer while Gleeson may strike just the right note.

Directed and co-written by Elie Chouraqui (with an assist from real photojournalist Isabel Ellsen), "Harrison's Flowers" plunges us into a hell where people are yanked into the street and shot, and their homes reduced to rubble.

As strong -- and stomach-turning -- as the war scenes are, "Harrison's Flowers" also has some inexplicable elements. About two-thirds of the way through, a voiceover pops up and later, the story annoyingly jumps a year ahead without filling in the intervening months.

Filmed in New York and the Czech Republic, "Harrison's Flowers" grows more improbable by the minute and the story's resolution doesn't pack the desired wallop -- at least not for me. It's not a remarkable film, but it should hold your attention as Sarah abandons reason for love and instinct. At times, her nobility seems almost foolhardy.

One of its most sobering moments comes at the end, when it reminds us 48 journalists were killed in the former Yugoslavia from 1991-95. In these days of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl, there's no more timely message.

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