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Within the last generation or two, television has irrevocably changed the idea of war in the public consciousness. While combat may remain thousands of miles away, television coverage has brought it right into our living rooms with its graphic images of death, destruction, and despair. Before, especially in the United States, protected as it is by two vast oceans, boys were sent off to distant battlefields and returned (if they returned) as seasoned men who had seen something of the world.
For those who didn’t experience it directly, war was all to easy to romanticize–a great adventure laced with patriotic idealism and the glory of heroism. Movies about the two World Wars, in particular, often romanticized and sentimentalized these wrenching historical traumas rather than rendering them with the irrationality, futility and horror of reality. With the advent of television and the resulting altered audience perception, some more recent films have gotten closer to the gritty realities (The Thin Red Line, Full Metal Jacket) while others (Charlotte Gray, Pearl Harbor)seem like anomalies, recently created artifacts with the mindset of half a century ago.
Head in the Clouds fits firmly in the latter category. Writer/director John Duigan (Molly, Lawn Dogs) traces the relationship between wealthy, amoral Gilda Besse (Charlize Theron) and idealistic working-class Irishman, Guy (Stuart Townsend), from when they meet at Cambridge in 1933 through World War II. According to the events on the screen, the sex between them was hot ("Our bodies were good together," she says at one point), but there’s precious little screen chemistry between these two young stars.
Several years after this first encounter, Gilda invites Guy to Paris where she has become a successful photographer and is living with an on-again-off-again lover, the gimpy Mia (Penelope Cruz). The Gilda/Guy romance resumes, though hardly on a monogamous basis on her side. Guy has been a Republican sympathizer in the escalating Spanish Civil War and Mia becomes a nurse so that she can return to her native Spain and help; they leave together. When Guy returns to Paris, Gilda rejects him.
When World War II breaks out, Guy becomes a spy for the British, working with the French underground in Paris. Gilda is living with a Nazi officer. Only if this heavy-handed plotting doesn’t sound thoroughly preposterous to you will you want to see the film to find out what happens. Head in the Clouds, spanning more than two decades of history, is plot-heavy and character light.
Theron lends credence here to those who think that her performance in Monster was a prosthesis-assisted one-note one shot, Academy award or no. The script provides her the occasional snappy line, but her delivery is at the high school play level and the snap emerges as droop. It’s not entirely her fault that the character as written is so thoroughly unlikable–a beautiful, spoiled, shallow woman who plumbs new depths of self-centered selfishness. Plot developments try to inject a character change, but neither the plot nor the acting can save her from ultimate vapidity.
Guy, on the other hand, remains the same idealistic puppy throughout, apparently enslaved by sexual attraction–why else would a smart guy like him keep coming back to the likes of her? Townsend (About Adam, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is a charmer stuck here in a charmless mess.
The movie looks good, with lavish period interiors and costuming, occasionally intercut with footage from the periods covered for a note of authenticity. Period music on the soundtrack adds significantly to the atmosphere. Duigan has the instincts of a voyeur, inserting mildly kinky sex scenes, but they come off as both tired and irrelevant. Like the overall idea of exploiting the horrors of war to tell a shallow love story, the sexual mindset seems very 1952.