The phrases "based on a true story" or "inspired by actual events" are little guarantee of a film’s authenticity. Filmmakers are notorious for taking historical events and rendering them virtually unrecognizable. Harrison’s Flowers presents the opposite situation. It’s 100% fabrication that uses real-life settings and events and is presented in documentary style. It’s far-fetched and manipulative, featuring an Andie MacDowell performance that justifies bricks thrown at the screen.
Harrison Lloyd (the underrated David Straitharn) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Newsweek magazine who’s decided to spend more time at home, watching his children grow and tending his greenhouse garden. His editor convinces him to take one last assignment: covering the Croatian civil war late in 1991, where (according to eyewitnesses) he’s killed when a building collapses during an attack.Harrison’s wife Sarah (MacDowell) refuses to believe the news, saying, "Something would have broken inside me if he were dead." She flies to Austria and sneaks across the border into Yugoslavia. Her plans run amuck immediately–her traveling companion is brutally slain and she’s almost raped. But then (in one of the film’s several all too neatly-arranged developments) she encounters two other photojournalists, one American (Adrien Brody), the other Irish (Brendan Gleeson). She enlists their help in finding a hospital in Vukovar, the one place where Harrison might still be alive.
One might reasonably wonder why a woman whose children apparently have lost their father in a war zone would feel compelled to place herself in similar jeopardy. As portrayed by MacDowell, Sarah’s statements and actions throughout the film appear largely irrational, far from loving or noble. The two photographers’ willingness to help her makes even less sense – they’re both veterans of the Croatian action and Brody even saw Harrison’s building collapse. It soon becomes apparent that their purpose is to tag along dutifully (demonstrating Sarah’s conviction and forceful personality) and to spout tepid political platitudes like "There are no bad guys here, no good guys."
MacDowell’s Sarah is more catatonic than dynamic. There’s little to indicate why anyone might want to join her seemingly desperate and misguided quest; she’s far more single-minded than persuasive. As a result Brody and Gleeson merely seem to be following her because… that’s what the script specifies. Gleeson’s performance is his usual stolid self, but Brody appears to be channeling a Serpico era Al Pacino for most of the film. One of Harrison’s New York colleagues (Elias Koteas) inexplicably appears about two-thirds through the film to join Sarah’s cheering section and provide explanatory voiceovers, occasionally necessary due to holes in the script and MacDowell’s emotional sterility. By comparison, the scenes featuring Straitharn are models of restraint and quiet intelligence.
Made more than two years ago, the film’s release is especially timely now given the recent kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And there’s no question that director Elie Chouraqui, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and production designer Giantito Burchiellaro have done an amazing job of recreating the hell that was 1991 Croatia, using various locations in the Czech Republic. (Even the "Newsweek" offices and the Lloyd’s New Jersey home are a Czech sound stage.) In scenes where non-English languages are spoken, Chouraqui uses a novel technique of omitting subtitles, effectively conveying the confusion that Sarah and her cohorts experience. The battle scenes are even more brutal than those in the recent We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down, because in Croatia the armed forces were effectively at war with their own population. Most of their victims aren’t soldiers, but civilians – being killed solely because of their ethnic heritage.
But the horrors that are depicted, while graphic and powerful, only serve to make an illogical story line and MacDowell’s vacuous performance more conspicuous. Mark Twain said: "Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense." If it had been true, Harrison’s Flowers might have been inspiring and poignant. As fiction, it’s merely a violent and implausible fairy tale.
– Bob Aulert