Mark (Colin Farrell, "Crazy Heart," "Ondine") and David (Jamie Sives, "Clash of the Titans") are British war photographers and best friends whose diverging points of view are causing friction. It's 1988 and the duo are negotiating their time in Kurdistan vs. the imminent birth of David's first child. With Mark pushing to always move towards greater danger, David decides he'll finally break stride and return home, but when Mark gets home later, he discovers David has not and becomes fearful his friend may have not passed through the war zone's "Triage."
Serbian writer/director Danis Tanovic, who made a splash back in 2001 with "No Man's Land," adapted Scott Anderson's novel and fell so in love with the material he decided to direct it himself. He may have been better off checking himself at only one of the jobs because despite some fine performances, the central character's journey, while metaphorically rich in an obvious way, lacks some credence when all is said and done. Still, this film has enough to offer that the only explanation for its direct to DVD status in the U.S. is the market's rejection of almost all recent films using war as a backdrop.
The film begins with Mark and David enjoying a drink with their wives before taking off. Mark is shocked to learn that if David and Diane's (Kelly Reilly, "Sherlock Holmes") baby is a boy, it will be named after him. Then Tanovic transports us into the first, and most literal, triage situation where Mark is documenting the work of Kurdish Dr. Talzani (Branko Djuric, "No Man's Land"), a man who tends to the wounded in a foul cave with no ventilation, no running water and no medicine. When a new batch of injured arrives, Talzani assesses each soldier's chance of survival and places either a blue or yellow strip upon him indicating whether he can spare the time and resources to save the man. In a truly shocking scene, Mark shoots as Talzani walks along a row of stretchers, shooting patients in the head. Branko Djuric may be playing God in a way, but the actor makes his doctor a truly remarkable man without turning him into a saint.
Mark insists on two more days to follow the troops and dashes out into the middle of armed conflict to get shots as David holds back. When Mark sayss he's going to follow the Kurds as they march towards an Iraqi fort (Talzani's provide a three-generational history of how the Kurds never win) David flips, says he 'cannot do this any more' and turns towards a twenty mile walk.
Tanovic fragments his story from this point on, segueing via dreamlike shots of a raging river and a confetti-like mass flying in the sky. Elena (Paz Vega, "Spanglish") is shocked at her husband's condition when he returns home (when she drains his bath, a scene with religious overtones, even more injury is revealed) and gradually realizes his mental condition is the more worrisome. Ironically his editor Amy (Juliet Stevenson, "Truly Madly Deeply"), doing her own triage of his work, dismisses the shots of his last two days in favor of the Talzani story. Mark avoids talking to Diane (at a party, he only spends time with her on a noisy dance floor, ensuring conversation is impossible, another nicely designed visual and aural sequence). He lands in the hospital when his injuries, which should be healing, seem to get worse and is surprised to be awoken by Joaquín Morales (Christopher Lee), his wife's estranged grandfather, a psychiatrist who helped 'purify' Franco's disturbed military men by talking them through their horrible deeds and returning them to humanity, the godlike 'forgiveness' side to Talzani's 'life or death' aspect.
This is where the director doesn't temper the literalness of the writer or perhaps where the writer's love of symbolism overwhelms more realistic character development. Everybody stands for something here and the truth about Mark and David, while a surprising dramatic twist, doesn't believably account for Mark's psychological reaction, the only 'gray' the character, who unlike David has been able to compartmentalize his professional and personal lives, exhibits. But despite these structural flaws, the dialogue is often beautifully written. Mark and David's relationship is established easily by their amusing banter. Talzani states the harsh realities of war poetically. Morales turns his granddaughter's judgement on its head by, ironically, pointing out that not everything is so black and white.
Farrell's been on a roll, his career rejuvenated, and he's good here, a seemingly fearless seen-it-all pro paralyzed when his those he's fate he's touched come too close to home. He's a man's man, woman's lover and tortured when his own ability to block out horror overflows. Also terrific is Christopher Lee convincingly playing a cultured Spaniard whose psychological tough love opens locked psyches. Kelly Reilly adds another layer of nuance to her performances as a strong mother-to-be shoring up to face potentially devastating news. Branko Djuric's Talzani could carry his own whole film - he even makes smoking a cigarette telling.
The DVD is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2:35:1 in a beautiful transfer. The easy to navigate menu offers two sound options, English and Spanish subtitles and scene selection. Extras include interview soundbites from cast and crew, most of which are repeated in the more enjoyable featurette where we learn that not only does Christopher Lee speak fluent Spanish (the film is in English, but Spanish locations subbed for Kurdistan), but that he parachuted into Tanovic's native Serbia during WWII. The film is dedicated to Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack.
Mark Walsh (Colin Farrell), with his ever-clicking camera, has photographed hot spots around the world. He and his partner David (Jamie Sives) are on assignment in the Kurdish province of Iraq when Mark decides to go on a rebel attack against the Iraqi troops. David, though, knows that they are pushing their luck and, with a sense of foreboding,, heads back to base. Mark is severely wounded in the attack and he is admitted to a primitive field hospital where his fate is determined by the doctor’s “Triage.”
After a lengthy recuperation, under the care of compassionate Dr. Talzani (Branco Djuric), Mark makes the long journey home to his wife, Elena (Paz Vega), in London. When he arrives he learns that David has not returned and is long overdue and David’s wife, Diane (Kelly Reilly) is two weeks from their first child. Marks wound heal but he is not physically getting better. When Elena finds him passed out on the bathroom floor, she rushes him too the hospital. Physically there is nothing wrong with him but mentally, though, is something quite different.
Reluctantly, Elena enlists the help of her grandfather, Joaquin Morales (Christopher Lee) a retired psychiatrist whose past has estranged him from his granddaughter. He treated the Franco war criminals suffering from the guilt of their terror campaigns in the Spanish Civil War. Putting Joachim’s past behind her, Elena introduces him to Mark and the process of healing begins. It is tough love, though, and, as Mark’s real story unfolds, has the cathartic effect Elena hoped for.
Writer-director Danis Tanovic adapts the Scott Anderson novel and his vision of the work makes me want to read the book. The story moves along in unexpected ways and is, though set with the backdrop of war, at its heart, a psychological drama of remorse and redemption.
Colin Farrell is constantly growing as an actor and his performance here is powerful and real. The two doctors in the movie, Dr. Morales and Dr. Talzani of the titular triage, are outstanding characters and each has an important but very different impact on the troubled photojournalist. Paz Vega plays the loving, caring wife well and her concern for her man is evident. Kelly Reilly has the tough role as a very pregnant, grieving wife and acquits herself well. While David is a significant character to the story, Jamie Sives has too little screen time to flesh out his character and is object more than subject.
Danis Tanovic proved his filmmaker’s eye with his impressive debut film, the internationally acclaimed “No Man’s Land (2001),” also with the backdrop of war but, like “Triage,” is a human drama. I am a little confused as to why “Triage” is being given direct-to-video treatment. It, too, is a potent human drama with fine acting, good direction and a complex, not complicated, story.
The DVD treatment is on the sparse side. There are interview sound bites of Tanovic and the cast, a trailer and a 17-minute making-of featurette. Only the featurette is worthwhile. I give “Triage” a B+ and the DVD a B-.
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