Dir Elie Chouraqui. US/France 2000. 123mins.

A stronger, more charismatic actress would have given Harrison's Flowers, the war melodrama directed by Frenchman Eli Chouraqui, a sharper dramatic focus than it gets in the hands of Andie MacDowell, an appealing actress who's more adept in light romantic comedies (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Green Card) than in serious pictures. Recalling some of Costa-Gavras's female-oriented political melodramas (Hanna K with Jill Clayburgh, Betrayed with Debra Winger, Music Box with Jessica Lange), albeit with a very different message, the story centres on the desperate efforts of a young woman to find her missing husband (well-played by David Strathairn), an idealistic photojournalist who gets involved in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, circa 1991. A long-on-the-shelves picture, which finally received its premiere at this year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Harrison's Flowers is bound for US theatrical release on Mar 15. US distributor Universal Focus may slightly benefit from the film's timely issue - the conduct of civilians and professionals at times of crisis - and from the recent kidnapping and murder of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl, but mostly the picture will be seen by patrons of the arthouse circuit.

In what is a rare positive portrayal of an American marriage on the big screen, the Harrisons function in an ideal unit as spouses, parents and even colleagues at Newsweek magazine. Under pressure from his wife to devote more time to his family, workaholic Harrison makes a request to his editor, Samuel Brubeck (Armstrong), to stop covering the war and other issues that take him overseas. It's understood that his next assignment, covering the Balkans war, will be his last risky one. As fate would have it, Harrison is declared dead, although there's no body to substantiate this.

Early on, the film captures the competitive milieu of photo-journalism, the petty and not so petty rivalry among peers in terms of the various subjects they cover, the relative dangers in such work and the kinds of photos produced (cushy and soft versus gutsy and disturbing). A Pulitzer Prize-winning photo-journalist, Harrison is envied and even despised by some of his younger colleagues.

The narrative is strategically set at the beginning of the conflict, before the Western world and the US became aware of the atrocities conducted in the name of "ethnic cleansing". Harrison is presumed to be dead by his associates and down-to-earth editor in a country that's far from home, geographically, politically and culturally. However, hell-bent in her pursuit to locate her husband, it's Sarah who leaves all the others in a state of disbelief. Instead of persuading her to turn back, she convinces Harrison's colleagues to forge ahead.

Once Sarah crosses into war-torn Yugoslavia from Austria, the saga turns into an adventure about a naive American abroad who is totally outside of her element. Sarah is helped by Kyle (Brody), her husband's cynical and critical peer, and his colleague Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson, who excelled in John Boorman's The General). For a while, the film depicts the horror that the trio experience from Sarah's point-of-view. Brutally treated, and nearly raped, Sarah survives due to a series of coincidences, a product of the messy, nasty war. Kyle, who saves Stevenson from a sniper's bullet, soon becomes Sarah's most reliable support.

All three learn lessons and new realities, finding new perspectives in the midst of an horrendous civil war, where brother battles against brother. Armed solely with a camera, they are forced to muster a courage they never knew they had before. This is particularly the case with Sarah, who immerses herself into a world she has never fathomed, and embarks on a perilous journey to find Harrison - dead or alive - based on slight evidence of news footage she has tape-recorded from TV, but mostly an inner, irrational belief that Harrison is wounded.

The film tries but only partially succeeds in conveying visceral journalistic immediacy with quasi-documentary techniques. The narrative, credited to Chouraqui and three other writers, seems to have been tampered with by various hands, resulting in a vastly uneven picture that vacillates between credible sequences and preposterous ones. Crucial characters, such as Harrison's buddy, Yeager (Koteas), appear almost out of nowhere. And what is at first a narrowly focused drama of a woman, whose previously stable and docile life gradually becomes unreal and even surreal, suddenly changes into a broader and diffuse chronicle, accompanied by a male voice-over narration. Perhaps because it was written by Frenchmen that the text often sounds awkward and stilted in English. Hence, Kyle tells Yeager at a crucial moment that "We better pray that someday we find somebody that loves us the way she loves him."

Sarah is meant to epitomise a single-minded woman, whose passionate love for -and crazed devotion to - her husband is the only constant and rational thing in an otherwise insane, ever-changing world. She is meant to be an ordinary woman, forced to do extraordinary things in crisis situations, evoking a previously untapped courage that surprises everyone, most of all herself.

Which brings us to the film's major problem: MacDowell's performance. The saving grace of MacDowell as an actress has always been her tendency not to underact, hence not irritating the audience even when she's inadequately cast. But for this picture to be effective, it calls for a far more forceful presence, such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening or Cate Blanchett. Unfortunately, lacking an expressive face, the few close-ups granted MacDowell don't do much to illuminate Sarah's inner conflicts and her gaining of a more mature, realistic and alert political consciousness.

The aptly titled Harrison's Flowers offers some compensations and rewards. The male cast, particularly the volatile and energetic Brody, is compelling and strong. It's also to the credit of cinematographer Nicola Pecorini - who won the Best Cinematography prize at San Sebastian in 2000 - and designer Giantito Burchiellaro that the combat zone evokes an authentic look, since most of the film was shout outside Prague in the Czech Republic.

Pro co: 7 Films Cinema, France 2 Cinema
US dist:
Universal Focus
Int'l sales: Studio Cana
Prod: Elie Chouraqui, Albert Cohen
Chouraqui, Didier Le Pecheur, Isabel Ellsen, Michael Katims, based on Ellsen's book
Nicola Pecorini
Prod des: Ginatito Burchiellaro
Jacques Witta
Music: Cliff Eidelman
Main cast: Andie MacDowell, Elias Koteas, Brendan Gleeson, Adrien Brody, David Strathairn, Alun Armstrong