There Be Dragons manages to keep the most sympathetic character from carrying any emotional weight. When you try to form a historical epic set during the Spanish Civil War and you miss out on grounding the film with an emotional core, you risk losing your audience in the motions of film making; beautiful scenery, heavy drama, and an intriguing story. But those are the things that Roland Joffé’s film squanders more than anything else. Without emotion, all of the standard qualities form a hollow experience. Worse than that, those not well-versed in Opus Dei nor the Spanish Civil War may not get the full benefit of the experience because they will be left with many questions from the very beginning. Hit the jump for the full review.
Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) is researching a candidate for canonization, Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), in the modern day and is trying to find more information on him. When a source points him to his own estranged father, Manolo (Wes Bentley), Robert must put aside his differences and try to find out how his father was connected with Josemaría. That’s when the intertwining story of Manolo and Josemaría’s past comes to life before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. The two grew up together but soon go their separate ways as Manolo fights in the war and falls in love with Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko) while Josemaría deals with the rising rebel angst against the priests and the constant threat of death. Through Josemaría’s journey we learn of the formations of Opus Dei and his will to forgive and persevere no matter the cost. As their story is recanted, we also learn of the fate of Robert and Manolo’s relationship and whether it will ever be healed after a devastating discovery.
Joffé wrote and directed There Be Dragons, and he managed to capture a glimpse of the past. The sets of the Spanish cities have a nostalgic charm and they play right into the epic scale the film is shooting for. However, there are some choices that truly detract from the epic nature of a large-scale Hollywood drama of yesteryear. The idea of sticking Bentley in a fat suit to portray Manolo some 70 years older is questionable at best, and mildly offensive at worst. Fat suits have never worked all that well, and confining it to shots of him sitting still and talking doesn’t help the magic either. In a crowded theater, I can imagine it will gather unintentional laughter, which is unfortunate for the film and the actor under the prosthetics.
Bentley has an inert sadness to his look, and it works well for the film. Manolo’s sadness carries on through his elder years, and he has never fully recovered from his years during the war. Yet, the audience will have a tough time relating to his character’s stoic coldness. Then there is the tragic rise of Josemaría. Cox gives a remarkable performance as an ever-patient priest with wild ideas of religion that only serve to strengthen his connection with God even if it may not win him awards for following the norms of his peers. However, even his character’s journey lacks any emotional punch when it should. Part of the blame is the incredible diversity between his character and Manolo’s story, but there is another hidden ingredient clearly missing from the equation. Whatever it is, the film can’t seem to gather enough momentum to make it a rewarding experience.
With a two hour run time, and a film this thick with drama, love, betrayal, and forgiveness, you would think there would be a large emotional payoff. And while the film did leave me feeling drained, it wasn’t in the right way. Instead, I was left exasperated and wondering why such an emotional twist didn’t have any impact. Of course you could always point out that who the twist occurs to doesn’t help make it affective. Despite this, the one area that did work were the sets.
Some might feel the scenery was a bit secluded but you can’t expect a war-torn Spain to blossom with diversity. Josemaría’s journey doesn’t carry any epic scale that the film desperately wants to capture, but the trip does feel like it is moving along the Spanish countryside. Even the special effects and the warfare portrayed feel adequate enough to keep their side of the bargain. Yet that just stands as another reminder that the film had some key elements working, including the lone emotional arc in Ildiko by the rising Olga Kurylenko. While Bentley’s well-documented star is recovering, Kurylenko’s shines bright in even the smallest role. Unfortunately, it just isn’t enough to overcome the story’s flaws.
There is a solid foundation behind There Be Dragons, but it never capitalizes on them. Joffé’s script is a thousand places at once, and often focuses on the wrong characters for far too long. He had the audience’s attention for two hours, yet the payoff just isn’t there. The formation of the controversial Opus Dei during the middle of the Spanish Civil War sounds like a thrilling plot line but this film seems to be just as happy to coast along. Ultimately, while There Be Dragons is epic in scope, with an intriguing story at its core, it cannot recover from simply being dull.