Following last week’s cinematic delight, I fired up the ol’ Amazon again this week and watched the second half of 1999 Leelee-Sobieski-vehicle-stroke-The-Messenger-mockbuster Joan of Arc. I feel sort of guilty because I’m going to do this write-up without being particularly funny. I am torn between two impulses.
My first thought is that in terms of filmmaking, this is not what your cineastes call a “good” film. I would feel bad comparing it to The Messenger except that it’s so clearly intended to be. And it’s … I mean, it’s clearly got a big budget for a 1999 TV series, and it’s got some good actors in it, even though many of them are kind of weirdly cast. But over it all hangs that cloud of made-for-TV inadequacy, with its grommet shirts and its stringmail and its occasionally-clever, often-clumsy dialogue.
Thing is, it is in many ways actually a better account of the life of Joan of Arc than its contemporary film. Partly this is just because it’s longer; it doesn’t condense so many characters because it actually has time to introduce the various minor ones; similarly, it can show more of the complexities of the situation. Partly it’s because it’s more grounded in the medieval period than in individual psychology; that might just be me that considers that a good thing.
Allow me to summarise: Joan is riding high after the coronation, but she starts to harbour secret doubts. She leads an attack on Paris that goes disastrously wrong, basically because Joan, uncertain of her faith, doubled down and went extra-fanatical on it. Her brother is killed in the attack and she has a big crisis of faith. La Hire also loses his conviction.
Meanwhile the king wants to make a deal with the Burgundians but Joan is against it. She goes to reconcile with her mum and dad, but it doesn’t quite work out; still, we see that Powers Boothe misses her and worries about her. She squabbles with Bishop Cauchon, and a panicky church reassigns him — to Burgundian territory. Charles begins to think that an impetuous, fanatical commander with the loving loyalty of the army is not such a great thing to have; he sends Joan on a suicide mission into enemy-held territory.
Joan is captured — she sees that this is all a trap but wants Charles to learn how to be a good king or something — and the trial goes along, with Cauchon presiding. But as it progresses, it becomes clear that Cauchon is actually trying to get to the bottom of Joan’s perceived heresy, while everyone else is just trying to railroad her to the stake. Shirley Maclaine has a basically uncalled-for cameo.
Meanwhile, love interest Jean teams up with La Hire to stage some kind of desperate last-minute rescue mission. This is all a bit pointless, since as we all know Joan gets burned at the stake. A text bit at the end informs us that her heart didn’t burn, which seems like a weird thing to care about if the rest of you did.
I mean … it’s the story of Joan of Arc, and that’s more or less what it is. But like all well-known historical stories, the filmmaker doesn’t seem to be quite sure where to locate the story’s conflict. Some versions of the story try to take it in the direction of wondering whether the voices are divine or demented, while this one tends to take a more political tack, as well as trying to have the thwarted love story or the tension between Joan and her father. But no one thing really takes off as the central conflict, and it just becomes a stroll through the history, simplified and often quite directly explained.
I have no idea why Part 1 got only one-star reviews, while Part 2 got four- and five-star reviews. They’re not that different, and this movie is neither that bad nor that good.