Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review - Valkyrie

The advance word on Valkyrie has been so toxic it comes as something of a relief to report that the film is nothing like the disaster many people were anticipating with such unseemly relish. Bad publicity has dogged this production for months, which is nothing new, but it seems to me that much of the chatter surrounding Valkyrie has been of a more vindictive nature – a lot of people out there really want this film, and its star in particular, to fail big time. Admittedly, the last few years in Tom Cruise's life have been a PR disaster – with his sudden desire to spout off about Scientology at all times presumably being behind the groundswell of negativity towards him – but aside from that, I still can't help liking the guy. He's a good actor, who can be very good; he's a genuine movie star, in an era when there are few who can make such a claim; and the commitment, focus and intensity he brings to his work is continually admirable. Whether his choices are good or bad, you never feel like you're getting less than 100% from Tom Cruise.

So, I wish I could hail Valkyrie as a cracking thriller, a vindication for its leading man against the naysayers, but unfortunately the film isn't anywhere near good enough for that. Bryan Singer's World War II drama is one to file away in that bulging folder marked "average", situated far away from the glorious and the dreadful, and the place where the majority of mainstream Hollywood product resides these days. This is a shame, because you couldn't ask for a better story – one that comes equipped with the kind of drama, intrigue and significance no writer is capable of inventing. This is the story of the plot to kill Hitler, which was carried out on July 20th 1944, and which very nearly altered the course of history. The plot was organised by a Nazi soldier, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Cruise), and if their plan to assassinate the 20th century's greatest tyrant wasn't audacious enough, consider the state von Stauffenberg was in when it happened – he had one eye, a stump where his right hand should have been, and two fingers missing on his "good" hand.

The special effects and makeup team work their magic on Cruise's disfigured extremities, while he dons an eyepatch for the part, but does not don, notably, an accent. Neither does anyone else in the film, and I think this is a commendable decision on the filmmakers' part, because unless you shoot the film in German with subtitles, making your actors speak in German-accented English is no more authentic than anything else. It doesn't really affect Cruise, he's never been one to disappear into another's persona, and he simply gets on with giving the kind of display that maximises his best virtues – he imbues Stauffenberg with a determination that keeps the film ticking, while skilfully expressing his mounting anger and frustration as his ambitious dream slips from his grasp. Whatever flaws we can find in Valkyrie, they're not down to the efforts of the leading man.

Instead the blame for the film's stuttering, disappointingly nondescript rendition of this tale can be laid squarely at the feet of director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, reunited for the first time since The Usual Suspects. That twisty thriller doesn't hold up very well today, but at the time its playful way with narrative and famous climax was enough to dazzle moviegoers and win Oscars. In contrast, Valkyrie plods through its story, detailing the key elements of the assassination plot in a dutiful manner. The film opens in 1943, where Stauffenberg (possessing a full complement of fingers and eyes) is telling his diary of his hatred for Hitler, although the film doesn't delve fully into the reasons behind his stance, he simply states his feelings and we move on. After we see the dramatic attack in which Stauffenberg was maimed, Valkyrie switches to a different narrative strand, and focuses on one of the many other failed attempts on Hitler's life (there were at least 15). This one involves Kenneth Branagh, a rigged cognac bottle, and a plot to blow the Führer out of the sky, and it's a terrific little vignette, graced by neat editing and a steadily rising tension, but it's an isolated highlight in the film's stodgy opening hour.

Branagh is sidelined after the film's first third, which is a shame, as he gives one of the most assured supporting performances among the mostly British cast. Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp are solid, Eddie Izzard is never remotely convincing, and Bill Nighy is terrible (as usual), but the characterisation is slim across the board. McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander try to instil a little emotional depth into Stauffenberg's tale by including a few trite scenes of him with his family, but it feels like a token gesture when they haven't bothered to give his wife anything to do beyond looking vaguely worried (In 2006 Carice van Houten gave one of the year's great performances in Black Book, and she really should be getting better roles than this). So many of these sequences feel stale and clichéd, and Singer's mostly uninspired direction rarely feels like more than Nazis-by-numbers.

Then, suddenly, Valkyrie springs into life. At the point where Stauffenberg finally puts his plan into action, the film finds a snappy rhythm, and Singer manages to eke genuine tension out of the bomb-planting set-piece and its aftermath. There are some great little moments, like the Cruise struggling to put the explosive in his satchel with his three fingers, or the desperate race to implement Operation Valkyrie before news of Hitler's survival spread, and this second half of the film is surprisingly eye-opening; I had no idea the plotters came so agonisingly close to pulling it off. The failure of the blast to kill Hitler can be put down to a perfect storm of sheer dumb luck, and even then the film suggests that the plan to take over Berlin might have still succeeded if one of the conspirators hadn't got cold feet, and failed to play his part in the proceedings at the critical moment. On such decisions and fateful twists the weight of history can often hang, but perhaps the biggest failing of Valkyrie is the way it never quite gives us a proper sense of the magnitude of these events. It's fairly exciting, and occasionally surprising, but even at its best the picture is never really great; it's just efficient, uneven and ultimately forgettable – and that's something a film on this subject should never be.